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Reflecting on the Battle of Midway

Posted May 31, 2011

Each year the Navy family pauses to reflect on the Battle of Midway – that day when the tide of World War II changed. 

To appreciate Midway, you need to start at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.  The attack on Pearl was a stunning blow to the American Fleet. 

Four months after that surprise attack the United States made two moves.  First, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle organized an air group to launch B-25s from the deck of the USS Hornet.  It would be an Army Air Corps strike at the heart of Japan but the Navy put them in range. Doolittle was supported by Vice Adm. William ‘Bull’ Halsey (who was born in my hometown of Elizabeth, NJ) with the flagship USS Enterprise providing air cover during their approach on Tokyo.  The second event occurred in April, 1942 when two carriers, USS Lexington and USS Yorktown, were sent into the Coral Sea to deter Japanese advances.  Unfortunately, Lexington was sunk and Yorktown was heavily damaged. 

Most of us would be hard-pressed to name a Captain of any carrier in WWII, but in case it ever comes up as a trivia question, the USS Yorktown was skippered by Capt. Elliott Buckmaster.  I know that name because what I want to talk about today is not the pilots who flew the missions against the Japanese Fleet, but the Sailors and Marines who kept the ships at sea and the planes fighting ready.

USS Yorktown limped away from the battle of Coral Sea having taken a heavy bomb hit. The ship was listing heavily and so badly damaged the Japanese believed she had been sunk.  As Machinist Mate E. Domienik wrote in his book “I Remember the Yorktown”: “Its planes all shot up, leaking oil from the sides of it plates; its radar not functioning; its crew tired, Yorktown silently slipped away from the graveyard…”  But Capt. Buckmaster and the men of the Yorktown were not ready to give in that easily.  They set a course for Pearl Harbor and after an evaluation of their ship, sent an estimate of a minimum of three months before she could be made fit for sea again.

So here it is, the message that as modern-era Sailors we all take to heart. The lesson that Chief Petty Officers exemplify to young Sailors, the lesson squadron commanders seek to impart to young pilots. Looking back today, framed in the trip from the Coral Sea to Midway, is the lesson that for over 235 years, in the face of challenge, we can do what others say can’t be done.

Doing what couldn’t be done…The USS Yorktown arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.  Most history books or narratives give only a sentence to the events of the few days that followed its arrival. Most accounts say, "Miraculously, yard workers laboring around the clock made enough repairs to enable the ship to put to sea in 48 hours."  They go on to note that USS Yorktown fought at the Battle of Midway and was lost to damage sustained in that fight.   

In my opinion, that brief reference to what happened between May 27 and May 30 in Pearl Harbor doesn't do justice to those civilians, contractors, Sailors and citizens, who were heroic in their efforts to repair her.

 USS Yorktown 29 May 1942 -Pearl Harbor Dry Dock - http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/g10000/g13065.jpg

When she arrived, the Navy Yard agreed with the estimated 90 days to repair the battle damage, but thought enough could be done in two weeks to enable her to get back to the west coast of the U.S. for an overhaul.  Admiral Nimitz, knowing about the expected Japanese task force from code breakers, directed that USS Yorktown be made ready for sea immediately.  Not ready just to go to sea, but to go and fight. 

Even with Pearl Harbor still recovering from the December 7 attack, USS Yorktown was expedited and entered Dry Dock Number One and "just barely fit," according to one witness. By the time her lines were over and long before the water drained, nearly1500 workers converged on the ship. Civilian contractors, Navy repair specialists and Yorktown Sailors carried, pulled, swung and lifted every conceivable ship building necessity from sheet steel, electrical cables and piping to the mundane necessities of life at sea - food and mattresses. Workers erected scaffolding around the hull, yard carpenters repaired decks with wooden beams and cut templates for bulkhead repair, welded steel plates over bomb holes in the flight deck and acetylene torches burned debris loose everywhere - sending temperatures in closed compartments soaring over 100 degrees.  Additional 20 mm guns were mounted on the hanger deck for the next air attack.

This activity went on around the clock, with the crew and workers rarely stopping to rest.  When they did rest it was in a corner for short intervals and then right back to the job not even wasting the time it would take to leave the ship. The hull was cleaned of marine growth by men using 3-inch scrapers alongside others with fire hoses.  There was no liberty call.  According to one source, the need for electricity for the work became so great that areas of Honolulu were blacked out so that the yard could use the extra power.  It was no "miracle" the ship was repaired so quickly - it was plain hard work – spirit, dedication and valor.

In under three days the fighting ship USS Yorktown was afloat and the yard workers were streaming off.  By the end of that day, Captain Buckmaster and the Yorktown’s crew, tired but ready, headed west. The final yard workers were removed from the ship by a Navy tugboat as she cleared the channel. Four days later Yorktown planes sank the IJN Soryu on the opening day of the battle.

Repairing USS Yorktown was a singular accomplishment.  As we commemorate the Battle of Midway, let's also remember that teamwork in Pearl Harbor, 69 years ago, enabled the victory we mark today.  Those Sailors and civilian men and women from the shipyard came from across the U.S. and answered the country’s call to duty. Time cards, deck logs and watch bills recorded their names, not the history books.

The Japanese were so convinced of their own capabilities that they came looking for a fight.  They wanted to engage the U.S. Navy in a decisive victory and expected to decimate the carriers they had missed at Pearl Harbor six months earlier.  The problem the Japanese faced in early 1942 after sinking or damaging a lot of our hardware was believing they had a naval advantage.  But the U.S. Navy was not then and isn’t now ships.  Our Navy was the Sailors, the men, and today the men and women, who serve.  Yorktown was not just a carrier but a fighting platform to launch and recover combat aircraft crewed by Sailors who wouldn’t accept that they couldn’t accomplish the impossible.

By the evening of June 4, 1942 the tide of the war had shifted.  Four Japanese carriers were sunk, over 300 aircraft destroyed and critical experienced combat veteran pilots were lost.  Our Navy lost Yorktown in this fight along with the destroyer USS Hammann, and nearly 150 aircraft.  More than 300 U.S. Sailors were killed or injured. 

Like any sea battle, the wakes of the ships and the paths of the aircraft vanish.  I have flown over Midway Island and the waters around it many times in my career.  There is no battlefield to tour, no ramparts to walk and imagine the fight that took place.  But we have the legacy of the victory that we continue to build on today. 

In Walter Lord’s book “Incredible Victory” he wrote “They had no right to win.  But they did and in doing so changed the course of the war”.  These words are now on the national memorial to the Second World War in Washington, D.C.

According to Ronald Russell in his book “No Right to Win”, ENS William Evans a pilot assigned to VT-8 on USS Hornet wrote a letter home in late May 1942 and said “If anything great or good is born of this war, it should not be valued…in the pages historians will attempt to write, but rather in the youth of our country, who never trained for war; rather almost never believed in war, but who have…brought forth a gallantry which is homespun, it is so real.”  ENS Williams was among the Torpedo Squadron Eight pilots lost at Midway.  

Today, the young men and women who continue to join and serve in the U.S. Navy, keep ENS Evans’ vision alive.  When called upon to do so, whether on, above, or below the sea, they demonstrate that same gallantry.  We’re proud to do so, and carry on the legacy won at the Battle of Midway.

2 Comments, Please review our Feedback Guidelines.

Steve Gorek said

Outstanding article and tribute by the admiral and true words cited by John Floyd. Yet in this day and age where the appropriateness of GOD is questioned by progressives and government. I would note the irony of those 10 minutes that changed history at Midway. If well read on the subject, one cannot help but note the timing of the U.S. air attack and how it found the Japanese aircraft both refueling and arming at the time. Coincidence? I think not. I think it is as coincidental as Picket's Charge at Gettysburg and Cornwallis bottled up at Yorktown.

July 7, 2011 at 3:42:51 PM EDT

John Floyd said

Renowned military historian John Keegan has called the Battle of Midway "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare." It was all that and, as you rightly note, Admiral Mahr, it was a victory made possible by the people who worked and sacrificed and died; who still personify the U.S. Navy's core values of courage, honor, and commitment; who cracked the code of the Japanese, giving Nimitz vital insight into Yamamoto's battle plan; who saved the Yorktown to fight another day; who repaired and outfitted her to return to sea for that fateful fight in record time; who sortied far from shore, many never to be seen again, to bravely face and decisively defeat an enemy who threated our way of life and the freedoms we still cherish today ... thanks to their courage, honor, commitment and sacrifice.

June 3, 2011 at 11:20:49 AM EDT


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Rear Adm. Randy Mahr

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