History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2

The Battle of Midway Part III: The Sinking of The Yorktown

“”Sinking Sun”: painting by Griffith Baily Coale, oil on canvas, 1942. Description: A U.S. Marine stands at parade rest on the bow of a PT boat as she moves slowly out to sea from Midway to give decent burial to Japanese fliers shot down on the islands during the battle. The red ball of the rising sun is prophetically repeated by the round disc and spreading rays of the sinking sun.” Text and picture courtesy of Wikimeddia Commons

With the release of Hollywood’s newest take on a Second World War battle- succinctly titled Midway– only a week away, it’s high time for me to finish my little series on the history of the Battle of Midway.

I also need to decide if I should start looking for a babysitter to see it in the theater, or just wait for it to come out on rental… (Here’s the trailer- what do you think?)

To briefly recap, Japan’s commanders planned to launch a surprise attack against the United States’ base on the Midway Atoll, capturing and occupying the islands there by June 7, 1942, exactly 6 months after attacking Pearl Harbor.

However, their surprise attack wasn’t a surprise at all. When they began their assault on Midway on June 4, three U.S. carriers were waiting for them: the Yorktown, the Hornet and the Enterprise.

Even without surprise, the conflict was fierce. During the morning fighting, the above-ground installations of Midway were devastated, and many American pilots lost their lives. (For more details on this phase of the conflict, check out my posts: The Battle of Midway, Part I and The Battle of Midway, Part II.)

However, Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo’s mighty fleet was burning. Three of his four carriers, the Akagi, the Soryu, and the Kaga were in flames.

The fourth, the Hiryu, was not. She still had intact planes, and now she knew where at least one of the American aircraft carriers was.

Word came to the Americans- enemy planes were headed for the Yorktown.

The  Yorktown on June 4, 1942, after being hit by 3 Japanese bombs.

In spite of anti-aircraft fire and defending fighters, Japanese planes landed three 250kg bombs on the Yorktown before being shot down. The explosions started fires and extinguished all but one of the Yorktown’s boilers.

The Yorktown’s crew set to work, and soon the carrier was limping along again and able to start refueling her surviving fighters.

Then word came from one of their accompanying ships- the Pensacola- which had been monitoring radar. More Japanese planes were approaching.

The  Yorktown launched her planes, and the ships that screened her set up a heavy curtain of anti-aircraft fire to protect the wounded carrier.

Only two Japanese torpedoes hit home- but they were enough.

The Yorktown slowed, and her great flight deck tilted, listing more and more to port. Attempts to restore the power failed- all was darkness below decks. Fearing the  Yorktown would capsize completely, the orders were given to abandon ship.

Lt. Joseph Pollard- a flight surgeon- shared his memories of abandoning the Yorktown, describing the scene in vivid detail.

“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. …

“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 hangar deck.” (Kagan and Hyslop pg 114)

Ships stood by to rescue the survivors. Meanwhile, American planes had located the source of these attacks- the fourth Japanese aircraft carrier, the Hiryu. 

Six direct hits soon had the Hiryu in flames and left U.S. pilots in control of the air.

The Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs.

The final stages of the Battle of Midway took the next couple of days as forces from the atoll and the remaining U.S. naval forces pursued fleeing Japanese ships and scouted around to make certain that there wasn’t a fifth carrier lurking somewhere out of sight.

During it all, the Yorktown remained afloat but crippled. Salvage crews returned to the carrier, hoping to repair her enough to get her back home (and, in the process, finding and saving a couple of wounded men who had been overlooked in the evacuation.)

Captain Buckmaster organized salvage teams, and had great plans for reducing the list, putting out fires, and pumping water out of the ship. They were making good headway…until 1335 (1:35 pm) when four torpedo wakes were sighted to the Yorktown’s starboard side.

The warnings were sounded, and the crew of the destroyer Hammann, which had been pulled up right alongside the Yorktown to assist in providing supplies for fighting fires, attempted to shoot the torpedoes, hoping to detonate them.

They were unsuccessful.

One torpedo hit the Hammann. She sank within 3-4 minutes. While most of the crew were able to get clear, an underwater explosion of unclear origin killed many shortly afterwards.

Two torpedoes hit the Yorktown. The impact was tremendous, but she didn’t sink right away. Destroyers rescued survivors from the Hammann and the Yorktown’s attempted salvagers with hopes that the work could continue. (Others went sub-hunting, though they did not find the one that fired those torpedoes.)

At 3:30 am, someone noticed the Yorktown’s list increasing, and at 5:01 she disappeared into the sea.

In spite of the loss of the Yorktown, the Hammann, and the many men who paid the ultimate sacrifice, the Battle of Midway was unquestionably an American victory.

Japan’s loss of four aircraft carriers and over 100 (irreplaceable) trained pilots derailed their plans for expansion in the Pacific, and was a major turning point in the war.

Worth making a movie or two about? I suppose so, though the real question is whether Hollywood will do the true stories justice.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see…

What are your thoughts? Do you like film based on real events, or do you prefer to keep entertainment fictional? Does knowing the background to a film make it more enjoyable…or less, as you’re tempted to fact check?

If you’d like more information about the Battle of Midway, please check out my previous two posts on this topic:

The Battle of Midway Part 1: On the Screen and in History

The Battle of Midway Part II: The U.S. Aircraft Carriers Enter the Battle

For further information-

Lt. Pollard’s quote was taken from Eyewitness to World War II: Unforgettable stories and Photographs From History’s Greatest Conflict by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop, published by National Geographic, Washington D.C.

Once again, I found the Naval History and Heritage Command an invaluable research resource. 

I also consulted my brand-new book a friend passed along, (because she knows me too well!) World War II: A Visual Encyclopedia edited by John Keegan, published by PRC Publishing Ltd., London.

Finally, Author Joy Neal Kidney is releasing a book this fall about her five uncles who served- one of whom served aboard the Yorktown and had quite the story to share of his experiences. I won’t give away more here, but if you enjoy family stories of history, you should probably just buy her book 🙂 (I don’t give that recommendation lightly!) 

18 thoughts on “The Battle of Midway Part III: The Sinking of The Yorktown”

    1. Probably….and that’s why we most likely won’t see it until it’s only a $1 rental ☺ But I can’t help being a little hopeful- there’s SO much material in the history of this, if they just use it…


  1. Would like to see the movie. Uncle Don Wilson was part of the attempt to salvage the Yorktown, even saw the torpedoes that doomed the ship, heard the alarm from the Hammann.

    “Loose gear scraped and banged. Don headed for the Yorktown’s fantail–the spot where he had abandoned the ship two days earlier. He leaped down into the elevator pit and scrambled out the other side. Other sailors joined him on the stern, preparing to jump. For some reason he could never explain, Don shouted ‘Wait!’ A tremendous underwater explosion–probably depth charges from the sinking destroyer–churned the bodies of the boys already in the ocean. When the oily water subsided, Don again plunged into the Pacific.”

    He received a citation for being in on the salvage attempt and a Navy Commendation Medal.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. THANK YOU for including this in the comments! I was thinking of your uncle’s story the whole time I was writing this. I truly hope the film does justice to the people who lived through this- and leads more people to learn more and remember. Xxxxxxx


  2. Anne, thanks for your 3 detailed posts on The Battle of Midway. I’ve appreciated how much research you’ve put into them. I’m afraid the movie hasn’t been receiving favourable reviews. But there’s one coming up in Dec. which I think you will be interested and not wait for the $1 rental, and that’s 1917. Exactly the year, WWI, and a personal family story written and directed by Sam Mendes. Another one coming out is A Hidden Life from Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), a WWII film focusing on an unsung hero. Just posted a list that might pique your interest. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the posts, Arti. Oh, I’m sorry to hear the movie isn’t going over well so far 😦 I haven’t looked at any spoilers, and with sick kiddos it doesn’t look like we’ll be checking it out until next week at the soonest… then I guess we’ll see. In any case, thanks for the leads on the upcoming films- they both sound intriguing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You told that so well. It’s hard to effectively summarise big events like this. It’s interesting, and coincidental, that Midway highlights both the value of intelligence and one of its limitations (ie knowing something doesn’t guarantee you can do anything about it). I actually enjoy movies about real events, but do get irritated when fact is unnecessarily turned into fiction. I thought ‘Longest Day’ was pretty good, especially for its time. But in many ways it was more of a dramatised documentary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was revisiting this post and just realized I never replied to you- so I will now, though I’m late! (only a year…and a couple of months…)
      Thank you- and what a great point about the difference between having intelligence and being able to use it- even “the best laid plans” don’t always go well.
      I just got a copy of the ‘Longest Day’ for my birthday- I think I saw it, but it’s been a long time. I’m looking forward to seeing it/revisiting it!


  4. Very well done summation.
    You also pose an excellent question about reading vs watching history. I’ve always had strong bias towards reading history and watching fiction. Perhaps because, while I love an exciting tale, I prefer to treat history seriously. Of course I often end up watching history too, it is compelling to me to SEE the imagery. Even though, so often, the immersion is broken by missteps and anachronisms.
    So on that note, I’ll take the unpopular position of saying I think the new Midway (2019) is vastly better than the older Midway (1976). The old one centered on fictional characters mixed with archival film clips that often did show what they needed to; gee I loved seeing someone take off in a TBF, fly in a SBD and SB2U, then land in an F6F… quite a trick…
    The new one has its quirks and mistakes, but little that left me thinking “that’s all wrong!” I’d also mention it has one of the greatest disparities in rankings EVER at Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, critical reviews slammed it. But paying customers, who actually wanted to see the movie, rated it quite highly. And when I saw it with my wife and another couple, I was quite pleased that they all liked it, and were able to follow the flow of events. I think that’s a win for a historic movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I wish I could weigh in on the old vs. new Midway debate, but I never saw the original- and this is why I’m so irritated that all of our video rental places went out of business about five years ago! Without them, it’s so hard to find specific older films- unless I’m lucky enough to find one at the library. Still, from what you say, it does sound like I’d prefer the newer one. Love the comment about the mysteriously changing planes! I don’t have a great eye for vehicles (not even my kids’ matchbox cars when they ask me what kind each is- thank goodness they’re usually labeled!) so I might’ve missed that- if I ever get my hands on a copy, I’ll have to see if I can catch the switches.
    Ahhh, Rotten Tomatoes…I know a couple of reviewers (some on WordPress) whose opinions I might let sway me, but most of the times I find reviewers and I must not be looking for the same things 🙂 I’m glad you all enjoyed it- and it really wasn’t hard to follow, which is a definite win!

    Liked by 1 person

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