Midway: Yorktown Recovers
By David H. Lippman
After Japan strikes USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway, Enterprise starts recovering VB-3’s planes at 12:37. Both carriers re-arm and refuel VF-3. Adm. Raymond Spruance needs those aircraft readied — Hiryu is still out there.
Air staff officer Miles Browning suggests an immediate counterattack. Spruance is not impressed by Browning’s desire for hasty action. The bombers are not ready, and Spruance doesn’t have an accurate fix on the Hiryu. He can’t afford to lose more aircraft on wild-goose chases.
Spruance is right. Rear Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi is still moving north to evade snoopers, his screen thinned by the need to keep destroyers standing by the three wrecked carriers.
At 12:45, Hiryu is ready to launch her 10 torpedo planes in two five-plane sections. Lt. Joichi Tomonaga will lead the first section, Lt. Toshio Hashimoto the second, the only two Eta Jima men left. Hashimoto’s pilot will be Petty Officer Toshio Takahashi. Lt. Shigeru Mori will lead the six fighters.
At 12:50, Soryu’s Jill scout plane turns up, and it’s hard to say who suffers the greater shock, the pilot on seeing Soryu blasted or Yamaguchi at learning that there are three carriers in the American force. Initially, he can’t believe it. He’s also annoyed that the brand-new Jill torpedo plane’s radio didn’t work.
However, proof is coming from the destroyer Arashi, where Ens. Wesley Osmus is talking. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Arashi’s skipper, Cdr. Yasumasa Watanabe, threatens the weary American pilot with a samurai sword. Watanabe brings his ship alongside Akagi to fight fires, and Osmus sees the destruction. Osmus reveals that the Japanese are facing Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown. With this information extracted and blinkered to Hiryu, Osmus is taken to Arashi’s stern, told to face aft, and hit in the back of the neck with a fire axe. The blow doesn’t cut his head off. He clings to the ship’s rail chain for several minutes before falling over into the sea.
Nobody is ever tried for this war crime, as most of the Japanese officers and crew are killed before the war ends. However, on Nov. 4, 1943, the destroyer escort USS Osmus is launched in Bay City, Michigan, sponsored by his mother, Louisa Osmus of Chicago.
After Yamaguchi digests the message, he gives last-minute instructions to Hashimoto, Tomonaga and Mori: “Launch an attack upon other carriers than the one Kobayashi’s group hit and set on fire. If no other carriers are found in the area, direct attack upon the same one.” Yamaguchi shakes hands with the three leaders, and says, “Hope for a good fight.” Yamaguchi has a special word for Tomonaga: “I am not going to let you die alone, as I am going to follow you soon.”
When Tomonaga reaches his Kate, the maintenance men point out that the left wing gas tank has not been repaired. “All right, don’t worry. Fill up the other tank and leave the left wing tank as it is.”
The crew chief is unnerved. “Yes, sir. But should we bring your plane to the starting line just the same?”
“Yes, and hurry it up. We’re taking off,” Tomonaga says, and the mechanics shove his plane into positions. Hashimoto begs his pal to take a different plane. No, Tomonaga retorts. They need every plane that can fly. Swapping will take too long. He can make it back.
Nobody’s fooled. But nobody’s going to argue with the samurai spirit, either. As Tomonaga’s buddies weep, Tomonaga pulls on his flight gear.
The torpedo pilots hop in at 12:45 and warm up their engines while the dive-bombers return. They can’t land until Hiryu’s deck is clear, so Petty Officer Satsuo Tange drops a message tube containing the Americans’ new position. Cdr. Susumi Kawaguchi rushes the information to Hashimoto to in turn give to Tomonaga.
At 1:10 p.m., Yamamoto radios Lt. Takenori Kondo, “Invasion Force will assign a portion of its force to shell and destroy enemy air bases on AF. The occupation of AF and AO are temporarily postponed.” The Main Body plunges through fog at 20 knots, with ships becoming mixed up in the gloom. Deck officers place searchlights on the sterns to illuminate the situation, but portside screening destroyers wind up on the starboard side anyway.
At 1:30, Tomonaga takes off on his last mission, heading east. Yamaguchi watches them go, silent, motionless. He knows this may be Japan’s last chance in the battle.
At 1:38, Akagi Capt. Aoki faces different facts: his carrier won’t survive. He orders the emperor’s portrait transferred to the destroyer Nowake. Seven minutes later, Nowake passes all this news on to Adm. Chuichi Nagumo and Yamamoto, adding that fires are still raging on Akagi. While this message goes off, Akagi stops circling.
At 1:40, on Yorktown, Cundiff and Delaney succeed in getting boilers 4, 5, and 6 lit off. Boiler technicians and water tenders struggle to build up steam. With three boilers, Yorktown can do 20 knots, enough to resume flight operations. At 1:50, the damage control men yield the flight deck to the aircrews, and they start refueling Yorktown’s fighters.
On Kaga, Lt. Cdr. Yoshio Kunisada realizes the hangar deck is doomed when the paint begins to burn, and the oily smoke nearly suffocates his men. He tries opening portholes, but the wind only fans the flames. Kunisada slams the ports shut, and the deck fills up with smoke. Kunisada gets the point. He blocks the exits and opens the portholes so he and his team can escape, landing on a foot-and-a-half wide bulge along the side of the ship that exists as a stabilizing device. On their way out, Kunisada grabs a carton of cigarettes, and passes the packs around to cheer the men up. Only Kunisada lights his cigarette.
As he does, someone yells, “Torpedo, right quarter!” Sure enough, three torpedoes are zooming in on Kaga. Two of them miss, but the third is headed straight for the wounded carrier.
The fish come from the submarine USS Nautilus. Since 11:45, it has been stalking a burning carrier at four knots to conserve batteries. Now the immense bulk of Kaga looms before Cdr. Bill Brockman’s periscope, with two destroyers nearby. Brockman identifies the destroyers as cruisers, but can’t figure out the carrier. With his XO, Lt. Roy Benson, he thumbs through outdated recognition books and decides that the Kaga is the Soryu. Not accurate, but good enough. He fires his first torpedo at 1:59, and his third at 2:05.
“Jump in the water!” Kunisada yells as the torpedoes race towards him. Nobody moves, so Kunisada leads by example. The rest follow him, and all swim away from Kaga’s hull, hoping to avoid concussion and blast. The torpedo hits Kaga and bounces off. The warhead breaks off and sinks, while the air flask pops up to the surface. The Japanese sailors floating in the water punch the air flask and yell insults at it, to relieve the tension. Another sailor hops on top of the torpedo and rides the “bronco.”
Another sailor, miles away, lets out a long cheer. Signalman Peter Karetka, standing on Hughes’ signal bridge, sees Yorktown yank down her yellow breakdown flag and hoist “My speed 5.” Moments later, Elliott Buckmaster has his signalmen hoist a huge new (10 feet wide and 15 feet long) American flag from the foremast. Old Glory ripples in the breeze, its red, white, and blue colors glittering in the sun, inspiring all who see it. Ensign John d’Arc Lorenz says, “For the first time I realized what the flag meant: all of us — a million faces — all our effort — a whisper of encouragement.”
Lorenz has helped carry the wounded gun captain, Johnson, down to sick bay, only to see him die en route. Lorenz, upset, returns to the flight deck to see dead, wounded, and debris, scattered everywhere. But as the flag goes up, he sees sailors waving their hats and shouting. Lorenz goes back to his mount and finds Seaman 2nd William Sullivan of Grand Rapids, who is badly wounded. Lorenz gets Sullivan below for a shot of morphine.
With morale and confidence soaring, everybody gets back to work, including the radar operators, who pick up Tomonaga’s strike at 2:10 p.m., heading in from the northwest. TF 17 moves back into Disposition Victor, while Yorktown cranks up to eight knots and then 15 knots by 2:28.
At that precise moment, Hashimoto is 37 miles away, and closing in. He checks through is binoculars to locate the burning Yorktown at the location he expects it to be — and it isn’t there. It must have moved again. Two minutes later he sees the Americans, and is amazed to spot a carrier steaming along without any apparent damage. It can’t be the Yorktown, he thinks. No ship could recover from damage so fast. Hashimoto is wrong: It is Yorktown. He simply does not realize just how capable and determined the American sailor is when confronted by imminent disaster.
Hashimoto streaks alongside Tomonaga, and points out the ships to his leader. Tomonaga sees the ships and the point. Hashimoto returns to his position, and at 2:32, Tomonaga forms his planes for attack. Tomonaga will attack from the port side, Hashimoto the starboard. Yorktown will have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aviation specialty.
Good tactics, but when the Japanese are 10 miles out, Yorktown’s patrolling F4Fs attack. The Yorktown’s radar picks up the Japanese when they are 33 miles out. Once again the big carrier drains the fuel lines and secures them with CO2, while hurling eight of the 10 F4Fs on her deck into action. Seaman 2nd Joe Wetherington slips on oil on the flight deck and under the revving propeller of another F4F. One of his buddies in VF-42, Seaman Bruce Blocker, snatches Wetherington from under the second plane before it rolls down the deck. Oklahoman Blocker is another man who delights pollsters: part Cherokee and Choctaw, he is a descendant of the “Sooner” settlers and a first cousin of actor Dan Blocker, who will play “Hoss Cartwright” on television’s “Bonanza” 20 years later.
At 2:05, Yamato’s radiomen decode a signal from Yamaguchi, timed 1:45, “According to report from planes, the enemy’s position at 9:40 (12:40 local time) is bearing 80 degrees, distance 90 miles from us. It is composed of five large cruisers and one carrier burning fiercely.” Good news for Yamamoto at last, but a minute later comes word from Haruna’s scout plane that the Americans have five carriers, all burning. Confusion reigns on Yamato’s flag bridge, as Yamamoto’s staff try to figure out what’s really going on.
On Astoria, a frustrated Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher watches the Japanese attack. He tells Rear Adm. Poco Smith, commanding the Astoria group, to fly two cruiser seaplanes to Midway and tell Simard, “For God’s sake, send a search and find out where this other carrier is.”
The combat air patrol charges in, splashing one of Tomonaga’s planes. Mori’s six Zeros pile into the Americans and keep them busy while the two torpedo sections charge in. Ensigns Dibb and Adams join Lt. J.G. Leonard in racking up three kills. The Japanese splash Ens. Hopper’s F4F, killing him.
At 2:40, Task Force 17 opens fire on the incoming strike. Hashimoto watches shrapnel clatter off his wings. Yorktown swings hard to the right and Hashimoto winds up on the port side, Tomonaga well astern. The Japanese attack anyway.
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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.