I was a young sailor on June 4, 1942, when the USS Yorktown was sunk in the Battle of Midway. We were only three miles from land—straight down! And that is where our great aircraft carrier still rests today as a tomb for some eighty-six of our friends whose lives so suddenly ended on that tragic day.
The best of the American and Japanese navies were in full conflict at the Battle of Midway, and we already had taken three bomb hits. Our hangar deck was in flames from one bomb, another had set fire to our fourth deck, and a third had exploded in the stack and blown out the fires in our boilers. We all felt the ominous silence of dead engines as we floated lifeless in the water!
At 2:00 P.M., our engineers had just gotten the ship’s engines started again when the next wave of Japanese attack planes came roaring in and dropped their torpedoes for the kill. That was more than a half century ago, and yet I can hear the agitated voice that spoke over the headphones and loudspeakers as if it were yesterday: “Stand by for torpedo attack!”
I can still close my eyes and shudder at the memory of the thudding of the two torpedoes as they struck us on the port (left) side. I was down on the third deck at water level when they blasted the side of our ship and ripped huge holes in our hull, and I can still remember how the ship lifted into the air with the impact of the explosions. As the water rushed in, the great aircraft carrier listed to the port side at twenty-seven degrees until the very edge of the hangar deck was dipping into the water. Inside the ship, there was nothing like a deck or a bulkhead, for every surface was lying at an angle and making it almost impossible to maneuver from one compartment to another. Water mains were broken and were spewing forth water, and the lights were out. Only the blue battle lamps illuminated the scene.
I will never forget the last command of Captain Elliott Buckmaster. A chill went through all of us as we heard his fateful words: “Abandon ship!”
In the following hectic hours, we struggled for survival. We had little time to think of the many friends we were leaving behind in the depths of the ship. If we were having trouble with a loss of electricity and broken water lines at the third deck, surely the men below us were flooded with little hope of survival. Yet, in spite of the jeopardy of our condition, I recall the disciplined calm among our sailors as we worked our way up through the destruction. Well trained for such a calamity, we helped each other find our way to the surface and then slid down two-inch lines into the oil-covered sea.
History has recorded the battle strategies, the mistakes, the glories, and the tragedies of the war at sea. The Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the Yorktown was first damaged, turned back the southern expansion of the Japanese Empire; the Battle of Midway, where she was sunk, was the turning point of the Pacific War. We look back now and see the entire Pacific Theater of the war from beginning to end—the Japanese expansion in Asia and the Pacific Islands, the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into the war, the prisoner-of-war camps, the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the signing of the unconditional surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri. Much has been said, written, and documented on film, but what history does not remember is that wars are not composed of the grand battles alone but of the personal challenges, tragedies, sacrifices, and faith of individuals caught up in the greater conflict.
History does not remember that at the very time when the survivors of the Yorktown were fighting for their lives, in the thick oil slick that surrounded the sinking vessel, many individuals and churches in America were praying. My own wife was seized with a deep burden for prayer, and just before the battle, I had one of the most outstanding spiritual experiences of my life. To all that has been written, I am adding my voice to say, “God was at Midway!”
This is an excerpt from the book, Dead in the Water, written by Stanford E. Linzey, and republished with a new introduction by my brother, S. Eugene Linzey, and an afterword by me. It is available on Amazon and on this website. The painting of the ship is by contemporary artist, Richard W. DeRosset.