By David H. Lippman
strike swoops down on USS
whose guns blaze defiance and shrapnel. The
guns tear apart a Val, but its bomb smacks
down onto the flight deck, just 15 feet inboard
aft of the island, near Mount No. 4. The
red-yellow flash blooms 60 feet high, and
shrapnel kills 19 of 20 men at Mount No.
3, 16 more at No. 4. The blast also cooks
off three planes in the hangar deck below,
two from Enterprise, one from Yorktown, loaded
with a 1,000-lb. bomb. Lt. A.C. Emerson,
the hangar-deck officer, yanks the sprinkler
system valve, and cool water smothers the
At Mount No. 3, Ensign John D’Arc
Lorenz, who has been knocked out by concussion,
staggers to his feet and realizes that his
mount stands atop a ready magazine of 60,000
rounds. Smoke is coming out of the magazine.
He jumps down to the flight deck and opens
a hatch in the magazine, to find shells burning,
spewing fire and smoke. He and two wounded
sailors struggle to put out the fires. Gunner’s
Mate Edward Zimmerle lies dying. The former
Nashville Golden Gloves boxing champion,
pale and exhausted, tells Lorenz, “Tell
my folks this isn’t the end.” Also
dead is Seaman 1st Rupert Davis, cut in half
by a splinter, and Seaman 2nd Pearl Greison
Prince of Bradenton, Fla. The latter lost
his wife and baby a few months earlier in
a car crash. But Seaman 2nd Harold Davies,
unscratched, one of 12 kids from a Dillsboro,
Indiana, farm, keeps firing his gun.
While medics care for the wounded, Yorktown’s
guns continue to crackle, shooting down the
second Val. Its bomb is a near miss close
astern, with splinters flying in all directions,
killing and wounding portside gunners. The
next section of Japanese planes swings in
from the portside, but only one releases
its bomb, which has a delayed action fuse.
The bomb, which looks like “a big,
black bowling ball” smashes through
the flight deck’s wooden planks, the
hangar deck, the XO’s office, and the
VS-5 Ready Room, where Lt. j.g. Charlie N.
Conaster is working out the flight schedule.
The bomb hits the coffee percolator, flooding
the compartment with brown goo, and keeps
on going, finally exploding in the carrier’s
stack. The explosion sends out a concussion
wave that shuts down the fires in the boilers
and ruptures the uptakes from Boilers One,
Two, and Three. Yorktown drops
speed from 20 knots to six.
Smoke and flame spew everywhere, into the
galleys, the personnel files, and even the
photo lab. A blast of heat and smoke rolls
up the stack, setting paint on fire and hurling
Signalman William Martin from his post on
the stack searchlight. He floats through
the air and comes to seconds later, hanging
over the rail two levels down, unhurt.
Yorktown, however, is badly hurt. Even as
she cuts her speed and spews smoke, another
Val swings in and drops one last bomb from
the starboard side. It smashes through the
Number One elevator and explodes on the fourth
deck, starting a fire in a rag storage room
that happens to be next to gasoline and 5-inch
shell storage. Damage Control Officer Cdr.
Clarence E. Aldrich personally leads a firefighting
team there to hose down the rags, while sprinklers
flood the ammunition. The blast also pops
open crates of powdered soap stored above
the rags, which pour from the crates and
help quell the fires.
Up above, Yorktown carpenters,
who have drilled endlessly for this occasion,
break out heavy timbers, hammers, and saws,
and start cleaning up the flight deck. Meanwhile
Kobayashi’s survivors pull out. Ens.
John Chase’s 20mm battery on destroyer
Hughes chases a Val right over Hughes’ bridge,
and Lt. Cdr. Donald Ramsey, the skipper,
rushes to the bulwark to yell at the gunners.
Astoria hurls 204 5-inch shells in 10 minutes,
with even Chaplain Matthew Bouterse passing
up cans of 1.1-inch ammo. Realizing it’s
unusual for a chaplain to move ammunition,
he thinks about Chaplain Howell Forgy's now-
famous words, “Praise the Lord and
pass the ammunition.”
One Japanese plane pulls out of its dive
and flies by Astoria at
bridge height. Astoria’s
machine guns stitch it up, but the plane
keeps coming. It passes along the starboard
side, and the pilot turns, waves, and smashes
into the sea. At least he’s had a look
at his enemy.
Also still airborne is Lt. Harry Corl in
his battered Devastator, hoping to land.
His wounded radioman-gunner, ARM3 Lloyd Childers,
is so weak from loss of blood, he passes
out when he lifts his head. Corl says, “We
can’t land on that ship.”
“Why not?” Childers mumbles.
“Can’t you see that hole in
the deck?” Corl replies. No, Childers
can't even lift his head. The hundreds of
sailors on the flight deck watching, who
include Childers' brother Wayne, assume that
since Lloyd is not moving in the rear seat,
he is dead.
Corl, short of fuel, heads for Task Force
16, just 40 miles away. But he can’t
make it. “Stand by to hit the water,” he
says a few minutes later, and splashes into
the drink near the destroyer Monaghan. Corl
tries to open his life raft, but oil has
blown it over the canopy, making it too slick
to open. Childers sees a whaler coming from Monaghan to save them.
“We don’t need the life raft,” Corl
says. “Let’s go.” Corl
jumps into the water and Childers slides
into the water. Corl drags Childers away
as the TBD sinks, and paddles for a few minutes.
When the whaleboat arrives, he tells them
to take Childers first. There is a doctor
on the whaleboat and he begins pressing Childers’ back,
squirting water of out his mouth. The doctor
tells Corl that if Childers had gone another
30 minutes without medical attention, he
would have died.
Childers recovers from his wounds and reports
to flight training in December 1942. He is
commissioned as a second lieutenant in the
Marines. He fights in Korea and makes lieutenant
colonel in 1962, despite not having a college
degree. He gains it later, anyway. After
retiring from the Marines in 1968, he earns
his Ph.D. and starts a second career as a
college administrator, becoming administrative
dean of Chapman College in Orange County,
Corl is shot down and killed at Guadalcanal
a few months later.
Twenty miles to the southeast, the men on
Enterprise, Hornet and the other Task Force
16 ships can only see the puffs of AA smoke
to tell them that a battle is going on. Then
a heavy smudge of smoke appears, clinging
to the horizon. Spruance figures Yorktown has been hit. He detaches the cruisers Pensacola and Vincennes and the destroyers Benham and
Balch to help. But he holds his 12 Enterprise combat air patrol fighters back until the
battle is nearly over. When Lt. Roger Mehle’s
12 F4Fs are released, they catch the Japanese
just as they are pulling out. To Mehle’s
annoyance, his guns jam. But they splash
As the Enterprise fighters plunge into the
fight, Cdr. Leonard “Ham” Dow,
Spruance’s communications officer,
hears a Japanese pilot say, in English, “All
planes return to base, all planes return
to base.” Dow is enraged, “That
was a Jap!” He yells into his microphone. “Disregard
the order to return to base — that
was a Jap!”
The Japanese pilot repeats his “order,” hoping
to empty the skies of American planes. But
Dow shouts, “The bastards are using
this frequency,” and continues to denounce
the Japanese trickery, doing so with increasingly
colorful metaphors and terminology that amuse
and impress everyone listening to the tactical
At 12:16 the last Japanese plane is gone,
11 minutes after the attack started. The
only sound now is the rumble of Yorktown’s
fires and the pounding of hammers and saws.
Cdr. Laing looks for his lost notebook. He
figures it was blown out of his hands by
the Japanese bombs. “Those Jap baskets
came rather a long way to ruin my month’s
Fletcher and his staff stand on the flight
deck, refugees from a smoke-filled Flag Plot.
They have a lot to think about; only seven
of 18 Japanese bombers were able to attack,
but they scored three major hits. Fletcher
himself is wounded, too, his head cut, but
he keeps working, dripping blood. A medic
slaps on a bandage, and Fletcher forgets
about his condition until he gets a Purple
Heart some time later.
The Japanese have also taken a beating.
Only five dive-bombers and one Zero fighter
escape Fletcher’s fuming muzzles. Kobayashi
is not one of them. One of the pilots reports
to Hiryu, “Enemy carrier is burning,” at
12:45. Jubilation on Hiryu’s bridge,
but Yamaguchi observes that one carrier could
not have punched out Akagi,
Kaga, and Soryu.
There has to be another one, maybe more.
Anyway, the torpedo strike will deal with
that. Hiryu is readying nine of its own torpedo
planes, plus an orphan from Akagi; four Zeros
as escorts, plus one from Kaga. Yamaguchi
has no time to scrape up more planes. He
will win or die with 15 aircraft.
At 12:20, Yamamoto radios a stream of orders
to his shaken subordinates. The invasion
of AF and the Aleutians is temporarily postponed.
Kakuta’s carriers are to head south
and hook up with Nagumo. The transports bound
for Midway will retire temporarily to the
southwest. Kondo will hook up with Nagumo.
Kondo reports that he will be in position
by 3 a.m. the next morning.
Then Yamamoto and his staff start piecing
together the situation from fragmentary reports.
Yamamoto needs to know if Midway has been
flattened. Ugaki radios Nagumo on Nagara to that effect, and gets no answer. Obviously
the attack on Midway was not a great success,
Yamamoto deduces. Kuroshima suggests a surface
force bombard the atoll by night. Yamamoto
mulls that over.
On Yorktown, Aldrich faces a damage control
officer’s worst nightmare — three
separate hits, four major fires. He fills
the forward magazine with seawater and the
gas tank with CO2. Firefighters smother flames
in the island structure, while repair teams
attack the flight deck. The hit abaft, 12
feet across, requires wooden beams laid over
them, a quarter-inch steel plate over that,
and more steel plate on top. It takes 20
minutes, but Yorktown’s flight deck
is ready for business.
In the engine room, two boilers are out,
the rest full of smoke. Chief Water Tender
Charles Kleinsmith re-lights the boiler fires
amid smoke and red-hot bare casing. Boiler
division officer Lt. Cundiff, wrapped in
bandages from his burns, crawls into the
uptake-intake space, to see why he can’t
get up steam. The answer: The bomb has ruptured
the uptake on Kleinsmith’s boiler,
and the smoke is going into other boiler
rooms. He orders Kleinsmith to reduce the
fires to bare minimum while repairs are made.
Kleinsmith, a native of Zionsville, Pa.,
is a 37-year-old veteran with 20 years on
his ticket, on the battleship USS Wyoming and cruisers Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Portland.
His wife Mary and three-year-old son, Charles
Jr., live in Long Beach.
Kleinsmith exhorts, cajoles, and threatens
his crew of six — a 20-year Navy veteran
can be good at that — to stay at their
posts and repair the boilers. Father of a
three-year-old son back in Long Beach, Kleinsmith
and his crew manage to close the throttle
and get the heat under control in Boiler
No. 1, the only source of steam for the carrier’s
generators. His team manages to keep 180
pounds of steam pressure and run auxiliaries.
The compartment is full of smoke, fumes,
soot, and unbearable temperatures. But Kleinsmith
and his gang struggle on.
At 12:30, Akagi captain Aoki blinkers Nowake: “All
safe except on flight deck. Every effort
being made to fight the fires.”
On Yorktown’s flight deck, Fletcher
decides that he can’t fight a battle
from an immobile and burning aircraft carrier.
Fletcher and his staff are just getting in
the way of Buckmaster’s efforts to
save his ship. Fletcher summons USS Astoria alongside at 12:30, and by 1 p.m., her No.
2 whaleboat is alongside. At 1:13 Fletcher’s
staff slide down knotted lines from Yorktown’s
flight deck, and other staff officers lower
themselves hand over hand. Fletcher is about
to do the same, then remembers he is 56 years
old. “Hell, I’m too damn old
for this sort of thing. Better lower me.” Two
seamen rig a line with a bowline in it for
Another task: caring for the wounded. Some
are beyond help, though. Boatswain’s
Mate Plyburn lies dying. He has $500 in his
pockets, saved for the day he plans to marry.
Now he begs his friends to take the money
and have a good time.
A whaleboat takes Fletcher and his team
through a Pacific Ocean full of empty brass
powder casings from five-inch guns. The casings
have turned into a vertical position, and
look like submarine periscopes. Yeoman Frank
Boo remembers the half-hour ride to Astoria as the most tense event of the day.
Also awaiting somewhere to go are Max Leslie
and his 17 circling dive-bombers, gulping
fuel and dodging bullets. Yorktown orders
them to land on Enterprise or Hornet. Leslie
and his fliers head northwest. En route,
Leslie spots a swamped U.S. TBD in the water,
its crew in a rubber raft. He and Holmberg
stay with the raft until the destroyer Hammann arrives to pick up the castaways. However,
that’s it for the fuel, and Leslie
and Holmberg have to splash into the sea
near Astoria. Leslie lands so close to Astoria that he walks down the wing to the ship’s
ladder. Before abandoning his SBD, Leslie
flicks every button to the “off” position.
Another American aviator is out of the game,
the determined Dick Best. While flying, he
tests an oxygen bottle to be sure it isn’t
leaking caustic soda. He snorts out the inhalation
with no ill effects. But tomorrow, he will
start coughing up blood. It’s not the
canister. He has activated latent tuberculosis,
and is hospitalized. He will be retired for
physical disability, but will survive until
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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. He maintains the World
War II + 55 website and currently works
as a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.