The USS Yorktown (CV-5) left Pearl Harbor for Midway on Memorial Day 1942. I had barely managed to get on board the night before. When I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in mid-December 1941, my orders were to the USS Oklahoma (BB-37), but she was sunk on 7 December. So I was sent to radar school at MIT and then on to the 14th Naval District for further transfer to the Yorktown.
When the Yorktown arrived back from the Southwest Pacific in late May, I asked to be detached but was told there was no hurry, because repairs to the ship would take two months or so. Running into a classmate already in the Yorktown, I asked for his advice. All he would say was that I better be on board before midnight. Because it was after work hours, I went to the Chief of Staff’s quarters to get him to approve my being detached. He was irritated but signed my orders.
The following morning the ship got under way and headed to sea. When we were well clear of land, the air group flew on board. All went well until the fighter squadron joined us. As the last plane came in for the landing, the pilot was not responding well to the landing signal officer. Coming in too high, he did not take the “cut.” The plane went over the barrier and landed on another plane. The propeller killed the pilot.
An hour or so later, officers were called to the wardroom. Using a large map, a senior officer described what was expected in the days ahead. We were to engage the combined might of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which already was heading for Midway. The enemy armada of 160 ships was being deployed in four fleets. The northwestern most was to attack and occupy the Aleutian Islands. The second one was a striking force (Kudo Batai) of four carriers: the Kaga, Akagi, S?ry?, and Hiry?, and possibly the Zuikaku and Shokaku. Its objectives were to destroy the airfields and other installations on Midway and our carriers, when found. The third fleet was to attack and occupy Midway. Following behind was a main body of large battleships and cruisers.
To oppose the enemy, the aircraft carriers Yorktown, Enterprise (CV-6), and Hornet (CV-8) were to go to a point about 300 miles north and a bit east of Midway. From there they would be able to strike the enemy carriers on their flank as they headed for Midway. Only a small force of cruisers and destroyers would be sent to the Aleutians, since the attack there was thought to be a diversion. Also, there were no more combatant ships to be had.
The briefing left me thinking. How could we know so much about the enemy, even down to the names of the ships in their strike force? How could we be so certain that we would risk the most important ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet? My new shipmates appeared not to share these concerns. The prevailing view seemed to be that the U.S. ships involved had fought the enemy to a standstill before and could do so again.
The evening before the expected combat, I was with four or so torpedo plane pilots. The conversation was subdued, yet these men would have known that the planes they would fly already were being replaced by ones with much improved performance. In fact, some of those new planes had just missed being delivered to the Yorktown. They also would have known that the planes they would face would be Japanese Zeroes—fighters known to be the fastest in the world and that had demonstrated strong performance in combat. To know all this and still be willing to face it without flinching was bravery and commitment of a high order.
The next morning, I went to the bridge for the 0400-0800 watch. About two hours later, a message arrived for the captain: “Many planes headed Midway bearing 315 degrees.” It and other data were in close agreement with the information disclosed in the briefing as to the location of the enemy carriers. I was no longer a skeptic.
At 0800 I was relieved. Not long after, the ship went to general quarters, and we began launching the air group: torpedo and dive bombers, then fighters.
Quiet settled over the ship. At the expected time, planes began to arrive back, but not in the close formation of their departure. Not a single torpedo plane was among them. Later it became known that 41 torpedo planes had been launched from our carriers; only six returned, none to either the Yorktown or Hornet.
Just before noon the ship’s loudspeaker sounded the alarm; “bogeys” were approaching from about 40 miles away. Planes were soon engaged in combat amid fire from our antiaircraft guns. I heard a loud thump on the hanger deck, in the direction of the forward elevator. A bomb exploded near the keel, but the damage was quickly brought under control.
When things quieted down, I went to the flight deck. The Yorktown was dead in the water and dense, black smoke was billowing from her stacks. The bomb had plunged through the flight deck and exploded in the boiler uptakes. Another appeared to have struck near the antiaircraft gun mounts just abaft the island. It had killed or injured about 30 of the crew and made a large hole in the flight deck. Hospital corpsmen were removing the dead and wounded.
Damage control personal were repairing a gaping hole in the flight deck nearby. Still, the scene was one of order and disciplined activity.
By noon, we were under way again. The ship ran up the signal: “My speed, six.” The captain also had a huge battle flag flown at the mainmast. As we continued to pick up speed, the action shifted to the port side. Looking out from the hangar deck, I saw planes flying above the cruiser screen. Two or three headed for the Yorktown’s port quarter. Two torpedoes were dropped in quick succession. Their massive explosions sent shock waves through the ship. Volumes of water flowed in, and we began to list to port.
As the list approached 30 degrees and the deck edge began to go under, the order was given to abandon ship. I went forward to the forecastle on the starboard side. A group of about 15 men were throwing knotted lines into the water, together with a light balsa raft. Shoes and clothing were being placed carefully against the bulkhead, presumably in expectation that we would return. Then we went down the lines into the water below.
The water was calm but covered by heavy fuel oil. People were leaving the ship in differing ways: lowering themselves down on knotted lines, being lowered, and for a few, with a high dive or jump. The “exec” burned his hands sliding down a line, let go, bounced off the bilge keel, and ended up with a broken ankle. I was hauled on board the destroyer USS Russell (DD-414).
The following day we were transferred to the submarine tender USS Fulton (AS-11) and taken to Pearl Harbor, where we were welcomed at the pier by Admiral Chester Nimitz and others. Survivors then were taken to nearby Camp Catlin, a temporary tent community. From Camp Catlin I was among a group moved to Fort DeRussey near Waikiki Beach to await return to the mainland. While there, I read a copy of the 7 June Honolulu Advertiser. Its headlines reported major damage by Army B-17s to the enemy’s carriers. The report turned out later to have been greatly exaggerated. B-17s had dropped many bombs from high altitude. However, not one had hit.
The Advertiser also carried a story from the Chicago Tribune. It was both true and on a matter of far-reaching impact. It said the Navy had broken the Japanese code and used it to target enemy carriers. I had an answer to my question as to how we could have known so much about the attacking Japanese armada.
A few days later, I was among a small group sent back to San Francisco by ship. We were cautioned not to discuss the loss of the Yorktown. I flew home on leave to New Hampshire, where my mother told me the radio news all day had been about a big naval battle in the Pacific. Then back to sea again. I was sent to the newly commissioned escort carrier USS Santee (CVE-29). She was being readied for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in October.
I began to reflect on what had happened at Midway. Foremost in my mind was the bravery and commitment of Navy men and women. For example, Lieutenant Commander Wade McCluskey, the Enterprise air group commander, led his squadrons well beyond the fuel “point of no return” and kept going—until he spotted an enemy destroyer. Concluding it would lead them to the enemy carriers, he swung his planes around. Quite by happenstance, Yorktown bombers and fighters were arriving from the opposite direction. Together, they destroyed three of the four enemy carriers.
Midway also saw superb battle leadership and coordinated command structure. Because of recent carrier losses, Admiral Ernest King directed that the battle be conducted in accordance with the principle of calculated risk. (Do not risk ships unless there is a good prospect of a larger reward.) Following receipt of the “Many planes headed Midway” message, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher ordered Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance to head southwest with the Enterprise and Hornet and hit the enemy, when located. He would follow with the Yorktown. This, in effect, turned tactical direction of the battle over to Spruance, who unleashed a full load on the Kudo Batai.
Spruance then faced the difficult question of whether to continue westward to attack the enemy battleships and cruisers. That is what the aviators wanted him to do. Instead, guided by the “calculated risk” principle, he turned eastward and doubled back to protect Midway atoll. Had he continued on, he might have run into an enemy force well skilled in battle at night.
Leadership among commanding officers and the air group commanders was likewise outstanding for both the Yorktown and Enterprise. On the Hornet, the air group commander led the dive bombers and fighters on a course that did not take them to the enemy; however, the torpedo bomber squadron leader, Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, disobeyed the air group commander’s orders and led his bombers on a course he chose, directly to the enemy. Although all his squadron’s planes were shot down, this action opened the air space above the enemy carriers for our dive bombers.
The Hornet’s battle report, made to Spruance, was late and not well done. Spruance sent it forward but cautioned that, in descriptions of similar events by both the Hornet and Enterprise, the report of the latter should be viewed as the more accurate.
Few aspects of Midway have been more widely discussed than the role of luck or good fortune. Two early books with large public sales reflected this in their titles: Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway. It is easy to see why. For example, to gain knowledge of our carriers’ location, the enemy would send a long-range flying boat from the Marianas over Pearl Harbor. The flying boat required refueling by a submarine at French Frigate Shoals, northwest of Oahu. In early June, quite by chance, a U.S. seaplane tender arrived at French Frigate Shoals, preventing the refueling operation. The planned flight over Pearl Harbor was canceled and the enemy did not learn our carriers already were headed for Midway.
This is only one of several examples that, taken together, paint victory at Midway as mainly the result of chance. This view tends to be supported by Spruance’s observation, “We were shot through with luck.” However, another view is that Midway was neither “incredible” nor a “miracle.” While chance played a role, victory also was the result of careful planning and combat intelligence, especially that acquired by the code breakers.
There is value in studying varying points of view as to the causes of victory at Midway. But such study must not be seen as providing its most important lessons, which are that our national security cannot be allowed to depend on chance or luck and must be based on the military might to cope with all challenges. Today, that means enlarging our strength at sea.
Captain Crawford served at sea in World War II. Most of his naval career was in the naval nuclear propulsion program, leading to service as deputy director, Naval Reactors. Later, he served as deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the Department of Energy and for two terms as a member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. Captain Crawford is a graduate of Tilton School, the U.S. Naval Academy, and MIT.
Photo Credit: National Archives