Midway, that well-named atoll in the middle of the South Pacific, is a wildlife refuge today. Its two islands are full of albatrosses—gooney birds, as the Navy always called them—much of the year. Little is left there to remind visitors it once was a major U.S. Navy base and 60 years ago the target of a Japanese invasion.
On the larger island, near the aged runways and hangars, stand three stones. On two are listed the U.S. ships and squadrons that fought and won the Battle of Midway, the turning point of World War II in the Pacific. On a third stone is a tribute written by author Walter Lord: "They had no right to win," say the first words on the stone. "Yet they did. . . . Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit—a magic blend of skill, faith and valor—that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory."1
One of those men, and one of Lord's sources for his book, Incredible Victory, is Peter E. Karetka of Chicopee, Massachusetts.2 His nickname was—and still is—"Flags." He was a signalman on board the USS Hughes (DD-410), and as he says, "A signalman sees and hears what other crew members don't." What Flags Karetka saw and remembers will not change any historian's interpretation of the battle. But his recollections offer new understanding of what Lord meant about the human spirit and that magic blend at the Battle of Midway.
Karetka's memory of the battle focuses not on the incredible victory but on the death throes of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) and the fate of the last two men on board the doomed carrier.
The prelude of the Yorktown's last battle came on 27 May 1942, when she limped into Pearl Harbor, a stream of leaking oil spreading miles behind her. Two weeks before, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, bombs had holed her flight deck and opened her hull to the sea. When she arrived at Pearl Harbor, battle-weary crewmen expected shore leave in the States, for they were sure that she would have to be sent to the U.S. West Coast for repairs. But Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, knew he needed the Yorktown—and fast. He ordered the carrier readied for battle in three days. Some 1,500 yard workers clambered aboard, patched her flight deck, welded steel plates on her hull, and shored up collapsed bulkheads with timber.3
Admiral Nimitz's codebreakers, working 20-hour days at Station Hypo in Pearl Harbor, had put together pieces of a cryptographic puzzle and told him that the Japanese Imperial Navy was planning to strike Midway.4 The USS Enterprise (CV-6) and the USS Hornet (CV-8) left Pearl Harbor on 28 May. The Yorktown sailed two days later.5 Arrayed with their support ships in two task forces, the carriers rendezvoused about 325 miles northeast of Midway.
On 4 June, in the epic 20-minute carrier battle that changed the Pacific War, U.S. dive bomber pilots sank three Japanese aircraft carriers, the Soryu, Kaga, and Akagi. The fourth, the Hiryu, still lived. From her deck, heading for the Yorktown, flew a vengeful force of 18 Val dive bombers and 6 Zero escorts. U.S. fighters protecting the Yorktown got ten Vals. Antiaircraft fire shot down two more.
The surviving Japanese dive bombers flew on, three coming in from astern the Yorktown, the others off to starboard. Dozens of guns ripped one of the planes into three pieces. But its bomb hurtled on, tumbling through the air and heading for the flight deck of the Yorktown.
At that moment, the Hughes was close in on the port beam of the Yorktown. Flags Karetka, at his battle station on the starboard wing of the Hughes's bridge, saw that bomb hit. Against regulations, Karetka kept notes on what he saw:
14:02 enemy sighted.
14:10 dive bombers attack.6
The bomb exploded on the flight deck, tearing it open and wiping out 19 of the 20 men at the 1.1-inch gun mount astern of the smokestacks on the starboard side. Other men nearby also were killed. Red-hot shrapnel touched off fires in the Yorktown's hangar deck, where Lieutenant A. C. Emerson switched on sprinklers and water curtains that snuffed out the flames.
A second bomb pierced the flight deck near the island and exploded in a fireroom, knocking out five of the six boilers. The carrier, which had been twisting evasively at 30 knots, slowed abruptly to 6 knots. Another bomb hit the Number 1 elevator forward of the island, plunged deep into the ship and exploded.
The Yorktown lost all headway. But her damage-control crews were serving her well. By 1350 the fires were under control and refueling of the fighters began on deck. At 1402, Karetka saw the Yorktown's yellow breakdown flag lowered. And he let out a cheer when he read the new hoist: "My speed 5." In minutes the speed was 12 knots, then 15 knots.
On board the Hiryu, torpedo planes were taking off for another raid on the Yorktown. Her radar picked up the planes from the Hiryu when they were 37 miles away. From Karetka's personal log:
Torpedo planes attack, hitting carrier. Some of the torpedoes were dropped from such a height they nose-dived straight down into the water.
I can see their cockpits open, grinning faces and leather headgear flapping. Watching them fly off, I noticed two of our fighter planes jump them. The results: two splashes, flights terminated.
Two torpedoes slammed into the Yorktown's port side. Fuel tanks exploded. Her rudder jammed. She began to list to port. The rim of her flight deck almost touched the sea. At 1500, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, fearing his ship would capsize, ordered the hoisting of the blue-and-white signal, "Abandoning ship."
From Karetka's log: ". . . listing heavily to port, abandoned."
(Some of Karetka's notes are not intact; words along the left sides of pages are missing. "We were told that anybody caught with diaries or notes would be subject to court martial," he says. So he tore the pages out of his log, threw some overboard and stashed others. "Also we were told not to talk about the Midway battle. One day I was sitting at a bar next to a soldier. After a few minutes he is telling me the great victory of the U.S. Navy.")
The Hughes and other destroyers pulled alongside to rescue the 2,270 men still alive. Some were scrambling down cargo nets. Others managed to reach boats or life rafts. Able-bodied men got the wounded out of sick bay, sometimes dragging them across a listing deck too steep for carrying stretchers. The Hughes picked up about 20 survivors.
On board the destroyer, Karetka grabbed a pair of binoculars and scanned the water for two sailors he knew were on board the Yorktown—brothers James and Marty Quinn, Karetka's boyhood chums. Later he learned that another destroyer had saved them both. Later also came the news that 24 dive bombers from the Enterprise (CV-6)—ten of them flown over from the Yorktown—had taken off to kill the Hiryu, then about 110 miles away. They sank her with four direct hits.
The Hughes was ordered to stay with the Yorktown until she sank. All through the night, the men on board the destroyer, both ship's company and the rescued of the Yorktown, expected that the carrier would slip beneath the sea. But she would not die. During that night, Karetka felt a bond between himself and the doomed Yorktown. It would be a bond that the passage of time has not dissolved. For Karetka, the Yorktown has been an enduring passion. He remembers:
The rest of the task force left the area. It did not make sense to keep the task force there, with a doomed carrier and the Japanese fleet still in the area. Losing a single destroyer and damaged, sinking carrier was acceptable, but not several ships. The Hughes was chosen to be the expendable one.
The destroyer was ordered, he says, to prevent anyone from boarding the Yorktown and to sink her "if necessary to prevent capture" or if a serious fire broke out. "We spent the night of June 4th alone with the Yorktown," he says. "We stood close in for protection. Some lights were showing aboard and we could hear items sliding off the carrier, hitting the water."
At 0626 on 5 June, the Hughes's radar picked up a target, apparently an aircraft about 20 miles to the west. Lieutenant Commander Donald Ramsey, commanding officer of the destroyer, ordered his crew to stand by to defend against air attack. But the blip faded away. No one realized that the blip was a scouting aircraft from a Japanese cruiser. It had spotted the stricken Yorktown, and orders had gone out to the Japanese submarine I-168 to attack the carrier.
About an hour later, the Hughes was patrolling on the port side of the Yorktown when crewmen heard gunfire coming from the carrier. Karetka, on the bridge wing, saw a string of little waterspouts between the Yorktown and the Hughes. "I thought a Jap plane was firing at us," he says. Another crewman thought that flying fish might have made the splashes.
What's Wrong with This Picture?
As we were searching for proper artwork to grace the cover of this issue, we found this painting of Midway by the acclaimed military artist James Dietz. It is included in the book, Portraits of Combat: The World War II Art of James Dietz (New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 2001). This "gaudy book cover art," Dietz says, "shows just how far off the historical record an artist can be pushed by the requirements of a commercial job." We thought it would be an interesting exercise for our readers to pick out the historical inaccuracies in this artist's rendering, entitled "TBDs at Midway," as part of our 60th anniversary commemoration. And Mr. Dietz has agreed to participate. So, how many historical inaccuracies can you find in the painting? We'll publish the answers and any response from the artist in a future issue of Naval History.
What Happened Next?
One way to tell what happened next is to skip ahead 58 years to a story in The Sunday Republican, a newspaper published in Springfield, Massachusetts. Jani Fox steps out of a store in Greenfield and happens to see the word "Yorktown" on a poster over a display of World War II memorabilia. Karetka was there, helping to raise funds for a World War II memorial. She knew her great-uncle had served on a ship by that name. She walked up to Karetka and asked him, "Did you know Norman Pichette?"
With sudden tears in his eyes, Karetka nodded and told her how he knew Norman Pichette. Jani Fox's question had taken him back to that day that began with the string of little waterspouts in the water.
When the Yorktown was being abandoned, two men in the sick bay had been given up for dead. One was Norman Pichette. The other was George K. Weise. In a letter to Karetka, Weise once wrote, "So many things happened to me out there that they seem very hard to believe."
The happenings began on 4 June 1942, when Weise, a leading seaman, was firing a 50-caliber machine gun mounted near the Yorktown's stack. A battle legend has the explosion of the day's second bomb throwing him so high that he grazed the wing of the Japanese plane. But in reality he slammed his head against the gunsight, fractured his skull, and then flew into the air, landing on the flight deck. Half-conscious, his right side paralyzed, he lay in sick bay, under eerie blue battle lights. He remembers hearing the battle horn blaring with the signal to abandon ship. Then:
The third class pharmacist's mate had his arm behind me, holding me up while asking the first class mate, "What about him?" The first class said, "Leave him. He's gonna die anyway." The third class was crying during the entire ordeal. He didn't want to leave me.7
After a while, in the stillness, Weise heard someone weakly call his name. It was Norman Pichette, another seaman, on a nearby bunk. Suffering from a stomach wound, he, too, had been left to die.
"What can we do?" he asked Weise.
"I told him to wrap a sheet around his waist and stomach and try to get on deck to fire a machine gun, and perhaps someone would know we were still on board."
Pichette did as Weise suggested. Bleeding and staggering, he made his way up to the listing port side of the hangar deck, where he found a machine gun, its barrel aiming at the sea. With failing strength he fired the gun and collapsed.
The Hughes sent over a motor launch and took the unconscious Pichette back to the destroyer. He regained consciousness long enough to say, "There's another live man in sickbay." Then he died and was buried at sea.
That is what Karetka told the woman he had chanced to meet outside a store where she happened to stop for wrapping paper on the way to a bridal shower. She finally had learned how her great-uncle had died.
As for Weise, the motor launch went back, found him, and brought him to the Hughes. "I remember being on a mess table on the Hughes," Weise says. "I got a blood transfusion from a doctor. It was his blood." Weise and Karetka still keep in touch.
Another 5 June note from Karetka's torn pages reads as follows: "Yorktown being towed by tug Verio [sic]."
The oceangoing tug was the Vireo (AT-144), a veteran of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While she was towing the carrier to Pearl Harbor at about two knots, a 170-man salvage team went aboard. They jettisoned aircraft, cut loose an anchor, and tried to trim the carrier by pumping seawater into empty fuel tanks. "Yorktown was dark and dead and silent," one of the salvagers said later. But she was rallying. Counterflooding had reduced her list, and the weight reduction had raised her higher in the water, making towing easier.
On the morning of 6 June the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) came alongside the Yorktown. The submarine I-168 was about 550 yards away.
Commander Yahachi Tanabe, captain of the I-168, raised his periscope and saw the Yorktown, looming large. Too close, he thought; torpedoes fired from that distance might go under the carrier. He backed off until he was about 1,300 yards away.8 He knew that several destroyers were guarding the Yorktown, and when he heard silence rather than sonar "pings" above him, he wondered if the sonar operators above him were all at lunch.
Tanabe fired two torpedoes, waited three seconds, and fired two more. Karetka remembers:
I was standing watch on the starboard wing. I noticed torpedo wakes heading for both ships. I ran to the pilothouse to warn the destroyer over the TBS, but a call was already going out warning them of the torpedoes approaching. I rushed back to witness the hits.
The Hammann's crew was prepared for such an emergency, but the alarm came too late. I watched as a crewman on the focs'le was chopping away at a mooring line. The destroyer must have gone into emergency astern, reacting to the call. With some mooring lines still attached to the carrier, this caused the stern to dig in, creating a backwash of water onto the stern.
One torpedo struck the Hammann, almost breaking her in half. Two passed under the destroyer and hit the Yorktown. Moments later, the Hammann's depth charges exploded. An officer on board the Yorktown watched the men in the water disappear—the way a "windshield wiper erases the droplets" from your windshield. "We were in so close to the Hammann," Karetka says, "that when her depth charges went off, it raised our stern."
While the Vireo and three destroyers rescued survivors from both torpedoed ships, the Hughes and two other destroyers went after the submarine. They hunted for hours, dropping a number of depth charges. (Tanabe counted 61.) Some came close enough to the I-168 to damage her severely. Her batteries knocked out and her forward torpedo room flooded, she surfaced and was smoking. The Hughes and another ship fired at her. Karetka wrote: "Hammann alongside Yorktown hit by torpedo and sunk, Yorktown also hit. Had surface fight with same sub reported possibly sunk."
As night fell, the Hughes headed back to the foundering and once again abandoned Yorktown. Karetka still bristles over his ship's withdrawal from the hunt, for he discovered long after the war that the I-168 made it back to a hero's welcome in Japan.
When the Hughes reached the Yorktown, a light signal came from a ship in the carrier group, which was heading for Pearl Harbor. Karetka read the flashes: "Stay with the carrier. Do not let her fall into enemy hands. Sink her if necessary. Good luck."
Karetka said to himself: "Thanks a lot, you bastards. Another night alone with the carrier."
Karetka saw the Yorktown go down at 0659 on 7 June. He remembers:
She slid gracefully, like a lady, beneath the waves, no dive, no gurgle, no foamy froth, no plume of water or screws showing—a sad but proud moment for me. The battle flag of my country was fully unfurled, proudly showing her colors, as she picked up speed in her final moments. At this point, tears flowed down my cheeks. I looked around and thought to myself, "This is a goddamn big ocean." To this day, when I see an American flag fully unfurled, flying stiffly out, I see the USS Yorktown beneath it.
In the years that followed the war, Karetka frequently read accounts that said the Yorktown had rolled over before she disappeared. He even saw a U.S. Navy photo claiming that the carrier had capsized and then sunk. The claims angered him, for they spoiled the majestic image he carried in his memory. He even found a Yorktown survivor and brought him to a notary public to swear that, while standing on the deck of the Hughes, he watched the carrier "go down bow first with a slight list to port."
Down Bow First
In April 1999, National Geographic Magazine published my article on Dr. Robert D. Ballard's rediscovery of the Yorktown at Midway. Accompanying photos—taken by cameras attached to the U.S. Navy's San Diego-based Advanced Tethered Vehicle—showed the carrier resting upright on the seafloor. Karetka interpreted the photos—and this painting based on them—as confirmation of his eyewitness memory. Several months ago, my sister-in-law, Nancy Edwards, happened to see Karetka's Yorktown display outside the same Massachusetts store that Jani Fox had entered. Nancy remarked that her brother-in-law had written the Geographic article.
She put me in touch with Flags Karetka. I told Naval History about Flags, and this article is the result. That Flags is still quite a signalman.
—Thomas B. Allen
1. Personal observations during visit to Midway in 1998.
2. Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, Classics of War Series, 1998).
3. Interview with Yorktown crewman William F. Surgi Jr.
4. For a full account of the pre-Midway codebreaking, see John Prados, Pacific Fleet Decoded (New York: Random House, 1995), pp. 315-322.
5. Details on the Battle of Midway come from Incredible Victory; Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, and Katharine V. Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982); Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers (manuscript of new edition, scheduled for publication in 2003 ); and the author's article, "Return to the Battle of Midway," National Geographic Magazine, April 1999, pp 80-103.
6. Peter Karetka provided the author with copies of his notes and other documents, some of which appear on his Web site, www.geocities.com/karetkamidway/. [The times he recorded do not correspond with the ship's log.]
7. Weise's words come from an account he wrote and sent to Kareta. He was also interviewed by the author for the National Geographic article cited above.
8. Karetka obtained the information about Tanabe and I-168 from Noritaka Kitazawa of the Military History Department of Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies.