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Oral History - Battle of Midway

Recollections of the Battle of Midway by LT Joseph P. Pollard, MC, USN, Medical Officer on board USS Yorktown (CV-5)

[Source: Oral history provided courtesy of the Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery]

On 15 December 1941 I was detached from the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine, Pensacola, Florida, destined to eventually join the crew of USS Yorktown. After a short cruise in USS Hornet and her plane guard USS Noa (DD-343) in the Atlantic, I drove across country by auto to San Diego and served briefly in Aircraft Scouting Force Pacific, Transition Training Squadron. After sailing in USS Fulton (AS-11) to Pearl Harbor, I served briefly while attached to the 14th Naval District in the Old Naval School Dispensary, Honolulu, T.H. When USS Yorktown arrived in Pearl Harbor from the Coral Sea, my orders to her were after this long time to be carried out.

On 27 May 1942, I was detached from Commander, 14th Naval District, and at 2000 reported on board USS Yorktown for duty. She was alongside Pier B-16 in Pearl Harbor. My room assignment was 0207, and I was introduced to my roommate, LTJG Edward A. Kearney, MC, USN, a Surgeon. I was introduced to Commander C.C.Yanquell for whom I was numerical relief; met Captain W.D. Davis, MC, USN, the Medical Officer; Dr. A. M. French; Dr. N.E. Dobos, Flight Surgeon; and Commander Dixie Keifer, USN, Executive Officer.

On 28 May 1942 Doctor Yanquell departed for San Diego. The ship moved into dry dock for hull inspection where she remained all day and night, meanwhile loading stores and ammunition.

On the morning of 29 May 1942, the ship was still in dry dock. I visited friends, particularly Lieutenant Commander Garton E. Wall, MC, USNR, at the Old Naval Station Dispensary and bid goodbye to Dr. James R. Martin. The latter expressed a strong desire to go to sea with us. I assumed the MOOD [Medical Officer on Deck or Medical Officer of the Day] until next morning substituting for Doctor Kearney. Doctor Wall came down to the ship to see me but at that time we were moving back to Pier B-16. Scuttlebutt in the ship was that we were sailing in the morning. Stores and ammunition were being hastily loaded.

On 30 May USS Yorktown put to sea at 0800 and took a course said to be towards Midway at a speed of about 15 knots. There was gunnery practice most of the morning using both towed sleeve and high speed sled. The gun crews seemed good. Morale was excellent. I had the flight deck duty station when we took on board our aircraft. One of our Lieutenant Commanders was killed at this time in a very unfortunate accident. A fighter drifted over the arresting cables, over the barriers and sat down on the back of his plane. The propellor of the fighter split his headrest causing a compound skull fracture; the next blade pushed in the rim of the cockpit crushing his jaw, face and neck and severing the great vessels of his neck. Obviously, there was nothing I or anyone could do for him.

On May 31 we spent a busy but uneventful day at sea. The aircraft landings were better and we had no crashes. Our escorts were the Portland, Astoria, Hammann, Hughes, Russell and Balch. The ship's company was informed that when this mission was completed, the ship was scheduled for a complete overhaul. This would mean perhaps a month's leave. Since the crew had just returned from the Coral Sea and had spent 102 days without liberty, this was welcomed news. We felt somewhat uneasy at going into battle in our condition as the water tight integrity of the ship was said to be considerably reduced as a result of damage received in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

On 1 June we spent a very busy day making preparations for battle. Anti-flash clothing, gas masks and steel helmets were issued to all hands. We had the shipfitter repair the large overhead water tank in Battle Dressing Station #1 and fill it with water. We broke out and rechecked our emergency medical equipment.

On 2 June our scouting aircraft were out morning and afternoon. Excitement was running high in the ship and morale was excellent. We were told that our submarines had reported a Jap invasion force (battleships, cruisers, destroyers and transports) off Midway Island. We rendezvoused with the Hornet and Enterprise and their escorts in late afternoon and remained with them overnight.

On 3 June scuttlebutt was thick. We heard that land based aircraft had picked up the Jap invasion force and bombed them and also that our submarines were active. A Jap task force was reported to have bombed Dutch Harbor today. A Jap carrier force was reported northwest of Midway consisting of three carriers and their screen. We were said to be heading towards them.

On 4 June I had the duty and Doctor Dobos assumed flight quarters in the morning while I took EENT [Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat] sick call. Our scouting aircraft were dispatched. One returned about 0930 and dropped a message on our flight deck. The Jap task force of three carriers and their screen was reported to be 200 miles ahead closing in on us at 25 knots. I was called to the flight deck to relieve Doctor Dobos and sick call was suspended, All of our aircraft came aboard uneventful and were gassed. Our bombers were loaded with 1,000 pounders; TBDs [Douglas "Devastator" torpedo-bombers] with torpedoes, and planes spotted for take-off --fighters, then bombers and lastly the TBDs. Everywhere there was an undercurrent of excitement. At any moment the word might be passed to begin our attack. At any moment we might be attacked.

Meanwhile, the Hornet had sent off her planes, the the Enterprise sent hers off. We could see them on the horizon like a swarm of bees - then they were gone. A report came in from Midway Island that the Japs were attacking. We hoped that our planes would make their attack on the Jap carriers while their planes were over Midway. After awhile a report came in that the Enterprise group was hitting the Jap carrier force at will. Apparently, the Japs had hit Midway with everything they had and had not expected to be attacked themselves. The Enterprise's attack was completed and word came over the bull horn, "Pilots, man your planes." We put off our bombers, torpedo planes and half dozen fighters for their protection. Then we put up more fighters for our protection. We sat tight with no news for awhile. There was a great deal of tension. There were small groups of people everywhere - talking in low tones. Everyone was wearing anti-flash clothing and steel helmets. All was quiet - too quiet. Battle Dressing Station #1, my duty station, was manned and ready. The morning wore itself away and the afternoon began. I became hungry and went down to the wardroom for a sandwich.

About 1400 our planes began returning. They had been out a long time and were low on gas. A couple of well-shot-up SBDs [Douglas "Dauntless" dive-bombers] made their crash landings. Then the fighters started coming aboard. Many were riddled with holes. We landed about five and then one came in too hot and too high. He began to float over the deck and it looked like trouble. The pilot recognized that he was in trouble and made a dive for the deck. He somersaulted and skidded away on the deck. I made a quick dive under the wreckage but the pilot was unhurt and got out of the wreckage before I could get to him. I began to run across the flight deck to my station but before I arrived there general quarters sounded, Jap planes were upon us. I dived down the ladder for Battle Dressing station #1 and on my way saw one of our fighters fall on one wing and like a shooting star hit the drink. There was a puff of black smoke and that was all. Upon arriving at #1 I lay flat on the deck and hoped that we would not get a bomb in the crowded dressing room or anywhere for that matter. By this time our AA [anti-aircraft guns] was in full bloom. I had never before heard such a roar - first the 5", then the 1.1s and 20 mm's, the 50 cal, and finally the hastily set up 30 cal. machine guns along the rail. I knew then they were upon us. Then all hell broke loose. I saw a burst of fire, heard a terrific explosion and in less then ten seconds was overwhelmed by a mass of men descending from the gun mounts and flight deck into the Dressing Station. An instantaneous 500 pound bomb had struck just aft of the starboard side of the middle elevator and shrapnel had wiped out nearly all of the men from AA mounts #3 and #4 (1.1) and also my corpsman who stood on the aft island ladder platform where I usually stood. Another corpsman was injured who was standing in the gear locker doorway.

I was overwhelmed with work. Wounded were everywhere. Some men had one foot or leg off, others had both off; some were dying - some dead. Everywhere there was need for morphine, tourniquets, blankets and first aid. Battle Dressing Station #1 rapidly overflowed into the passageway, into the parachute loft and into all other available spaces. I called for stretcher bearers to get the more seriously wounded to the sick bay where they could receive plasma, etc., but the passageways had been blocked off due to the bomb hits. So we gave more morphine, covered the patients with blankets, and did the best we could. Many patients went rapidly into shock. All topside lights were out and I never realized that flashlights gave such miserably poor light. There was no smoke in Battle Dressing Station #1, which was fortunate. Water hoses were dragged into the passageway in an attempt to control a fire somewhere forward in the island - the hose had been perforated by shrapnel and sprayed water all over the deck and on some of my wounded who were lying in the passageway. Our water tank was very useful to us as there was a great need for drinking water and none was otherwise obtainable.

I went up to the flight deck. The first thing that I noticed was Mount #4. A pair of legs attached to the hips sat in the trainer's seat. A stub of spinal column was hanging over backwards - there was nothing else remaining of the trainer. The steel splinter shield was full of men - or rather portions of men, many of whom were not identifiable. Blood was everywhere. I turned forward and saw great billows of smoke rising from our stack region. We were dead in the water and it suddenly dawned on me how helpless we were lying there. A repair party was rebuilding a portion of the flight deck. Then I was called aft where there were several casualties from shrapnel which came from a near miss off the fantail. There were wounded also along the catwalk along the starboard side.

Doctors French, Dobos, Lough and Jackson came up - later Captain Davis. We arranged to have our topside casualties lowered to the sick bay on the forward bomb elevator and this was begun.

The fire by this time was discovered to be in the rag locker and was under control. This stopped the billowing column of smoke which gave away our position and made us so susceptible to a second attack. Suddenly, there was a great burst of steam from our stack, then another, and amid cheers from all hands we got underway. Meanwhile, the Admiral and his staff had gone over to the Astoria and it was said that we had orders to proceed to the States at the best speed we could make. We seemed to be doing all right and began getting the ship in shape. We were really beginning to have some hope that the Japs would not return, but alas and alack.

About 1600 our radar picked up enemy planes at 40 to 60 miles coming in fast. We had just begun to gas five F4F-4s [Grumman "Wildcat" fighters] that we had succeeded in landing just before the previous attack. Some had only 25 gallons aboard. Nevertheless, they took off post haste. We were just hitting 22 knots but they took a long run and made it off. Just as the last one left the deck I made a dive for Battle Dressing Station #1 and again the AAs began as before. By the time I could find an unoccupied place on the deck there was a sickening thud and rumble throughout the ship and the deck rose under me, trembled and fell away. One torpedo hit had occurred. My thought was that we could take this one and get away with it perhaps but not any more. Then another sickening thud and the good ship shuddered and rapidly listed hard to port. I knew we were completely helpless but did not want to admit it. Just then word came over the speaker, "Prepare to abandon ship." I was dumbfounded. It was uncomprehensible. A man lying beside me with one foot shot away and a severe chest wound turned his head towards me and asked, "What does this mean for us?" and turned his head away. He knew that he would have no chance in the water. This man was later seen in the Naval Hospital in Pearl Harbor on the way to recovery. We listed more and more to port until it was almost impossible to stand on the slick deck. We searched frantically for life preservers for the wounded, taking some from the dead. Our stretchers had gone below to the sick bay and we had difficulty finding enough for our wounded. All who could possibly walk did so. I went up on the flight deck and walked along the starboard edge being very careful not to slip and skid the width of the ship and off the port side. The ship rolled slowly with the swells but the water was not rough and after each roll she returned to her former position. I thought a big wave might possibly capsize her. A bulkhead giving way below might also let her go over. Our list was about 30 degrees. The speakers were dead and when word was passed to abandon ship, it did not get to me. Several life rafts were in the water but the lines over the side were not long enough to reach the water. Lieutenant Wilson and I tied some lines together and lowered some wounded. Meanwhile the sick bay wounded were being lowered from the hanger deck. Captain Buckmaster came up and said to abandon ship.

(Captain Buckmaster came up to me as I was on the verge of going over the side at a place we had lowered some wounded on the starboard side aft of the island structure. There were several life rafts of wounded floating below me. He asked what I was waiting for. I told him I was waiting to get off all the wounded and that we had searched the topside structure and the catwalks and I was sure that we had every man that was alive from this area on the life rafts. He said something to the effect that "they said the Captain should be the last to leave the ship. I'm ready to go now. Would you leave.")

I chose a big line and went over the side. I stopped at the armor belt for a rest. It was at least 75 feet from the deck to the water and I still had some 20 feet to go. I worked along the armor belt to a spot which was immediately above a life raft. The line there was a small one and soon after I started down a corner of my life jacket got inside my grip and I began slipping. The fingers of both my hands were rather badly burned before I realized it. The I released the line and dropped the remainder of the way into the water and swam through the oil to the raft. We took on board several wounded who were close by until the raft was overflowing and the few of us with life preservers had to get out and swim or hold on with one hand. As each wave broke over our heads the oil burned our eyes and noses like liquid fire. It was impossible to keep from swallowing some of it. Someone would swim alongside and say hold me up a minute please and proceed to vomit the oil and then swim on. We had nine stretcher cases and about 25 men on or hanging on to our raft. We tried to flutter kick and paddle our raft away from the side of the ship, but each wave seemed to bring us back against her side. If she capsized we would be carried down by suction and not have a chance. Finally, someone got the bright idea of paddling aft along the side of the ship and we began to make some headway. By doing this we finally got free of her stern.

Meanwhile, our destroyers were weaving back and forth about 300 yards away picking up survivors. Captain Buckmaster swam alongside the raft that I was holding on to but would not come aboard as we were so overcrowded. Instead he swam to a nearby raft and hung on to it. A passing motor whaleboat threw his raft a line and was towing it to the Russell but with too much speed and a mess attendant was pulled off. Instead of treading water, he began screaming and wearing himself out. Captain Buckmaster turned loose of his raft and swam to the mess attendant. They were both about gone when a man from our raft swam out and helped keep both of them afloat. We took the mess attendant aboard but the Captain preferred to swim.

About this time the Hughes threw us a line - two or three of them. All were short and as enemy planes were reported coming in our chances seemed to be at an all time low; but the Hammann finally came alongside and got us. She was a wonderful ship. We had been in the water two and one-half hours (picked up at 1930). Just as we hit the deck of the Hammann, there was another general quarters alarm (enemy planes) and she went to full speed but the planes proved to be friendly. Fortunately, the Japs seemed unaware of our predicament.




22 July 1999