By David H. Lippman
As the Japanese
Kates line up to attack,
the eight F4Fs on Yorktown’s deck take
off. They splash three Zeroes immediately.
Last aviator off Yorktown is Ensign Milton
Tootle IV, son of a St. Joseph, Missouri,
bank president. Moments after clearing the
flight deck, he hangs on a Kate’s tail
and shoots it down. Seconds later, American
flak brings Tootle down. He bails out into
the drink and is picked up by destroyer Anderson.
He has the rest of the day to think about
his 15 minutes of battle.
With the Kates roaring in on the deck, TF
17’s cruisers fire their 8-inch guns
into the sea ahead of the Japanese, setting
up reverse waterfalls. All but five Kates
are kept away from Yorktown. At 2:32, Tomonaga
yells into his radio, “Entire force
At that same time Lt. Sam Adams, leading
a two-plane SBD section of Scouting 5, is
heading back from a long, frustrating, three-hour
mission to search for Hiryu. At 2:30 he peers
down and sees white wakes. He swoops in to
look, and spots four destroyers, three cruisers,
two battleships, and Hiryu at the center,
heading north at 20 knots. He works out the
position, and tells his radioman, Karrol
to send it by Morse as well. Karrol responds, “Just
a minute, Mr. Adams. I have a Zero to take
Adams is so absorbed in his task, he is
unaware of Hiryu’s combat air patrol.
At 2:37 Adams pulls away, and at 2:45, Karrol
bats out, “1 CV, 2 BB, 3 CA, 4 DD,
31°15’N, 179° 05’W, course
000, speed 15.” Hiryu is heading straight
for the American fleet.
Hashimoto punches his release button abeam
of Yorktown, 800 yards (500 meters) from
the carrier, then races overhead to escape. “Head
for the bow,” he yells at pilot Petty
Officer Takahashi, and the Kate streaks off. “Did
we get a hit?” Takahashi asks. Hashimoto
looks back, to see a geyser of water shoot
up from Yorktown. Hashimoto howls with joy.
Jimmy Thach sees a Japanese torpedo plane
swinging in on Yorktown. “I made a
good side approach on him and got him on
fire,” Thach recalls later. “The
whole left wing was burning, and that devil
stayed in the air until he got close enough
and dropped his torpedo and that one hit
the Yorktown. Even though he was shot down,
he went ahead and dropped his torpedo. He
fell in the water very close to the ship....” Thach’s
memory of the battle and the testimony of
a Japanese survivor indicate that Thach’s
victim in this encounter is none other than
the strike leader, the doomed Lt. Joichi
Hashimoto sees Tomonaga’s last fight
as well. Hashimoto reports later: “His
plane, with its distinguishing yellow tail,
was clearly discernible as he broke through
the heaviest antiaircraft fire I have ever
witnessed. He launched his torpedo, and then,
in the next instant, his plane disintegrated.
His assault on the carrier, in the face of
that devastating gunfire, was tantamount
to a suicide crash.”
Down below on Yorktown, Seaman Jerry Lemberger
is setting switches to control the five-inch
guns, when he hears the 1MC broadcast, “Torpedo
attack. Port quarter. We’re going to
be hit.” He and his fellow electricians
exchange glances. Up above, BM2 Joseph Lewis
hits the deck, falling on his stomach with
The first two torpedoes miss Yorktown, but
the third hits portside amidships at 2:43,
the fourth just ahead of the third. The jolt
rips paint flakes off the deck, pops holes
in fuel lines and shakes Yorktown mightily.
Explosions cook off the port fuel tanks.
Water floods three firerooms and the forward
generator room, shutting off electricity
and killing every man there. Yorktown’s
rudder jams at port 15, and she stops in
her tracks and starts listing to port.
The second torpedo hurls a geyser of water
into the air that rips a catwalk from its
weldings and slams it against the hull, trapping
crewman David Pattison against the hull in
a mass of twisted metal, a scrap of angle
iron slammed into his right thigh. Sailors
standing on the port side who did not lie
down suffer broken ankles, and others are
killed when the concussion smacks them into
the carrier’s steel hull.
The blast has more force than all the bombs
that have hit the carrier. It knocks Lewis
to his feet and explodes several compartments
away from Lemberger. He and his pals hear
and feel the shocks. Then the lights go out.
Someone whips out a flashlight and the beam
hits the water surface in a drinking jar — it’s
tilting. The carrier’s list finally
stabilizes at 26 degrees.
Among those killed by the torpedo is Water
Tender 1st Charles Kleinsmith. He is posthumously
promoted chief and awarded the Navy Cross.
Up above, the gunners maintain fire. One
Kate flies along Yorktown’s port side,
and the plane’s radioman-gunner, Giichi
Hamada, shakes his fist in defiance at the
Americans. Everyone targets that particular
Kate, but it gets away. Fifty years later,
Hamada says that he waved his fist in relief
that his damaged plane was not going to crash
into Yorktown’s side. On the way home
Hamada takes a bullet in the leg, and says, “I
keenly realized what war was.”
All the other ships in TF 17 are blazing
away, too. On Russell, a 20mm crew keeps
firing even though another ship has fouled
the range. The skipper, Roy Hartwig, throws
his helmet at the gunners to make his over-enthusiastic
men cease fire. Signalman Houle on Hughes opens up with a Thompson .45 submachine gun
from his ship’s bridge.
All this gunfire has its effect. One shot
from Pensacola blasts a torpedo out of the
water, and flak from Vincennes sends a Kate
hurtling into the sea.
On the ships, many men can only stand and
wait, doing jobs below decks. Pensacola’s
Repair II team, clutching axes and hammers,
waits for orders in a darkened messdeck.
They listen to the boom of 5-inchers and
the clatter of machine guns, and wonder what’s
going on, wishing they could do something.
Jimmy Thach also has to find somewhere to
land, and he does so on Enterprise. Spruance
wants to see him on the flag bridge. “Well,
how do you think we’re doing?” the
admiral asks the aviator.
“Admiral, we’re winning this
battle,” Thach says in his Arkansas
drawl. “We’ve already won it,
because I saw with my own eyes three big
carriers burning so furiously they’ll
never launch another airplane.
“Of course, that fourth one ... an
unfound carrier is a dangerous thing. We
certainly ought to be able to get him. I
think we ought to chase them, because we’ve
got the advantage now.”
Spruance smiles at Thach. “Well, you
know we don’t have any battleships.
All we have is cruisers, and if we start
chasing them, it’s going to get dark
pretty soon. If we suddenly catch up with
them, they may be able to chew us up before
we get within gun range at night, and we
don’t have much of a night attack capability.”
“I think they’re on the run,
and I think we ought to chase them,” Thach
says. Spruance sends his eager and aggressive
fighter leader to take over Hornet’s
fighter group, which is humorously known
as VF 3-42-8, to reflect its mixed origins.
As the Japanese pull out, Adams’ message
arrives on Yorktown. The radiomen try to
send it by TBS to Astoria, but that’s
broken, too. They blinker it to Fletcher,
who passes it on to Spruance on Enterprise.
At 2:52, after 12 minutes of battle, Portland becomes the last American ship to cease fire.
The Americans are certain they have splashed
every attacker. They’re wrong. Hashimoto’s
plane is clawing for altitude. He meets up
with CPO Nakane’s Kate, an Akagi orphan
that still has its torpedo. “You fool,” Hashimoto
says to himself, “what did you come
here for anyhow?” He pulls back his
canopy and yells at Nakane’s rear-seater,
pointing at the torpedo. The rear-seat man
waves and pulls the lever to jettison the
fish into the sea. Hashimoto is angrier than
The two planes streak to the rendezvous
point to await the rest. Five of Hashimoto’s
planes and three Zeroes show up, but Tomonaga’s
entire section is gone. And three of Hashimoto’s
planes will be write-offs when they reach
Hiryu. Even so, Hashimoto is sure that he
attacked a different carrier from the previous
strike. He radios Hiryu, “Two certain
torpedo hits on an Enterprise-class carrier.
Not the same one as reported bombed.”
On Hiryu, the message is greeted with jubilation.
Two American carriers punched out means it’s
one against one — a fair fight.
Yorktown slows to a halt. On a nearby cruiser,
New York Times reporter Foster Hailey, working
on a story Navy censors will hold up for
three months, sees “where the torpedoes
had hit, girders could be seen, twisted and
broken like match sticks. Debris littered
her deck. Slowly she began to turn on her
side.” An officer next to Hailey says, “My
God, she’s going to capsize.”
On Yorktown’s bridge, Buckmaster orders
his AA gunners to reload their weapons and
prepare for another attack. He calls Cdr.
Clarence Aldrich, the damage control officer
and Lt. Cdr. John F. Delaney, the engineering
officer on the sound-powered phones. Neither
have good news. Delaney reports that seawater
has flooded the engine room and put out all
boiler fires. All power is lost. The electrical
switchboards have also been destroyed, which
knocks out the pumps. With many hatches and
bulkheads not properly repaired in the Pearl
Harbor rush job, Aldrich doesn’t know
the ship’s condition. It could turn
Having heard these two reports, Buckmaster
paces up and down on his bridge for several
minutes. He says that he hates to give the
order to abandon ship. But he does order
all personnel to “lay up on deck and
put on life preservers.”
Seconds later, the ship lunges to port.
The list stabilizes at 26 degrees, but Buckmaster
has seen enough. “I didn’t see
any sense in drowning 2,000 men just to stick
with the ship,” he says later. His
after-action report is less emotional: “In
order to save as many of the ship’s
company as possible, the commanding officer
ordered the ship abandoned. The ship was
in total darkness below decks, and it was
very difficult to move around because of
the heavy list.” At 2:55 p.m., Buckmaster
gives the order to abandon Yorktown.
With no power, the word is passed by sound-powered
phones and mouth. Training and drill kick
in. Sailors drop ropes over the high side,
away from the direction the carrier threatens
to capsize. Thousands of kapok life jackets
are stored in large canvas bags overhead
on the hangar deck. Crewmen pull ropes attached
to the bags and life jackets rumble down
on the deck.
Down in sick bay, doctors and corpsmen haul
stretchers loaded with 50 to 60 seriously
wounded patients up ladders and across oil-streaked
decks. Senior medical officer Capt. W.E.
Davis and chief surgeon Lt. Cdr. French don’t
get the word at all — they’re
too busy treating a wounded sailor.
Another sailor unaware of abandonment is
Chief Water Tender George Vavreck, of Portsmouth,
Virginia. Down in the engine room, he and
his team don’t realize the situation
until they hear men scrambling up ladders.
Someone opens a hatch and yells out, “What’s
A sailor yells back, “Hell, we’re
abandoning ship!” Vavreck and his colleagues
head for the exits.
In the darkness and mayhem, sailors forget
some portions of the drill. Yorktown’s
rough log is left on the bridge. The radiomen
leave safes open, and code books and secret
messages lying around. In squadron ready
rooms, aviators leave 70 sets of air contact
codes all over the place.
But in a few minutes, hundreds of crewmen
are milling around the slanting flight deck.
Some sailors wait by their abandon-ship stations
for power launches to be lowered, even though
there is no power. Others toss life rafts
overboard. And some try to cope with the
concept of leaving their beloved home with
jokes. Cook Thomas L.J. Saxon stuffs his
pet white rabbit in a gas mask bag and saves
both himself and the bunny. Chicken Underwood
saves his poker winnings from his locker.
Ens. John Lorenz refuses to leave until he
saves the photograph of Delight McHale — the
woman he wants to marry — from his
cabin, slipping it in his cap. Aviation Ordnanceman
Bill Surgi sees damaged F4F No. 23, his plane,
on the flight deck, and suggests he and Aviation
Machinist’s Mate Joe Fazio take out
the plane’s clock as a souvenir. Surgi
later says that Fazio answered, “Oh
no, I could never do that,” while Fazio
remembers saying, “To hell with the
Soon the sailors start climbing down the
ropes to the waiting destroyers. Cdr. Ralph
Arnold has gone over this procedure with
Lexington survivors. He carries a knife,
gloves, and keeps his shoes on. Machinist’s
Mate George Bateman arranges a neat pile
on the deck of shoes, shirt, gloves, and
flashlight. Many sailors line up their shoes
meticulously on the deck before going overboard,
expecting to return. Buckmaster tells his
men to hurry. “You know, I can’t
leave until you leave,” he says.
With dozens of knotted ropes hanging down,
hundreds of sailors climb down. Lt. William
Crenshaw remembers his Annapolis training
and inches down hand over hand. It doesn’t
work — the Yorktown rope is covered
with oil. He plummets into the sea. Others
have trouble, too. Worth Hare burns his hands.
A man above Seaman Melvin Frantz falls onto
Frantz’s shoulders, and both fall into
the sea. Boatswain’s Mate C.E. Briggs
falls into the sea. While pushing to the
surface, he remembers that he has given away
his life jacket, and has on his shoes, sweater,
pistol, and two ammunition clips. He still
pops to the surface.
Wounded gunner Pete Montalvo reaches the
flight deck, his left shoulder and arm all
bandaged. Once there, he realizes he can’t
climb down a rope, but his boot camp pal,
Seaman 1st John Pallay, of Linden, N.J.,
is there. He takes Montalvo on his shoulders
into the water.
Other seamen look for buddies. James “Chuck” Liner
hunts for his pal, Curtis Owens, whose Gun
Mount Four has suffered every man killed
or wounded. He learns that Owens is in sickbay.
Liner finds Owens, head covered in bandages.
Liner identifies his pal by his enormous
nose “When I saw his big old long nose,
I knew it was him.... He was shot all to
pieces. They’d knocked him out with
morphine.” Not knowing if his friend
is alive or dead, Liner carries him over
his shoulder like a sack of corn and up to
the flight deck, and back down to the hangar
deck, and onto a stretcher, and down to a
life raft. Then Liner joins Owens in the
The torpedo hits split open fuel tanks and
Yorktown is now surrounded by a giant oil
slick. Sailors are forced to swim through
it, and become sick from the fumes or choke
Seaman 1st Louis Rulli, of Astoria in New
York, climbs down a fire hose. He drops off
of it 15 feet above the water, swallows a
mouthful of oil when he hits, and starts
choking. He struggles to get the oil out
of his mouth, and is seen by Liner. Liner
grabs Rulli’s life jacket and pulls
him onto the raft. Rulli holds on and cleans
out his mouth.
Other sailors find humor in the situation,
waving hitchhike thumbs at debris and yelling, “Taxi!” Survivors
on one raft kill time by singing the “Beer
Barrel Polka.” Cdr. “Jug” Ray
goes down with his brier pipe in his teeth.
A young fireman asks permission to dive from
the flight deck, something he had always
wanted to do. Permission granted.
Lorenz goes to the dressing room to make
sure everyone has left. He finds Seaman 2nd
Bill Sullivan, of Grand Rapids, Michigan,
alive among a pile of dead bodies. With another
officer, he wraps Sullivan in a blanket,
and drags him across the flight deck. However,
the list puts the deck 60 feet above the
ocean. The two officers tie their jackets
to Sullivan. Then they lower him down on
a line. When Lorenz hits the water, his cap
slides off, along with the photo he sought
to retrieve. Lorenz and Sullivan hang on
to a passing piece of timber, left over from
flight deck repairs earlier that morning,
and Lorenz keeps Sullivan’s spirits
alive by talking about the girl he intends
to marry. “If you survive,” Lorenz
says, “I’ll name my son after
you when I have one.”
Sullivan survives. So does Lorenz. When
he gets home to Portland, Oregon, he talks
Delight McHale into marrying him, and they
name their second son William Sullivan.
Continued in Part 13.
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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.