Remembering the Battle of Midway
A series of clashes in the Pacific Ocean determined the outcome of World War II a year and a half after Pearl Harbor. Oregonians and Portlanders were heroes in what culminated in the Battle of Midway, which happened 80 years ago this month.
The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunged America into the Second World War. Germany declared war against America a few days later, prompting an official expansion into the European Theater of War.
In early May and June, 1942, American and Japanese naval forces met in two crucial naval battles that were fought in waters far apart from one another. In the Coral Sea, an American task force sparred with the Japanese fleet in an action in which the vessels did not come within sight of one another. A month later, the two sea powers met again off the shores of Midway Atoll in what is considered one of the most important naval engagements in the history of warfare.
Even after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, the Japanese continued to expand the perimeter of their Pacific empire. To control the Australian sea lanes, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, they moved to establish bases in the Solomon Islands and at Port Moresby, New Guinea. From there, incursions onto Australia's northern coast could be launched.
Also, as a direct result of the American bombing of Tokyo, Midway Atoll was again placed on the Japanese target list, until this time having been considered too far from Japan to supply. But now it suddenly seemed crucial to invade and occupy it.
Establishing a naval and air base at Midway would serve the Japanese in two ways. First, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was convinced that by seizing Midway, the Americans would be forced to commit their aircraft carriers in an effort to recapture the base. This would give the Japanese the opportunity to at last destroy the U.S. carrier fleet in a "decisive battle" as it had not quite managed to do at Pearl Harbor. There was no serious doubt in the minds of Japanese naval strategists but that they would prevail in such a match-up of sea power.
Second, a Japanese base on Midway had profound strategic implications. Because it was within bombing range of Pearl Harbor, Midway could be a jumping off place for an outright invasion of the Hawaiian Islands. The effect of a successful operation would be to force the relocation of the American naval fleet back to the U.S. West Coast. World War II in the Pacific would be fought by the United States from that far location. The implications for Hawaiians who would find themselves as captives under Japanese oppression can only be speculated.
Port Moresby under attack
American naval strategists, using their new "weapon," cryptanalysis, were able to read a portion of the Japanese transmission code, JN-25. Thus, the attack in early May on the southern coastal areas of New Guinea was foretold.
Commander-in-Chief of Naval Operations in the Pacific, Adm. Chester Nimitz, dispatched a carrier task force to intercept the invasion fleet. The force was comprised of the USS Lexington (CV-2) and the Yorktown (CV-5). The latter warship recently had arrived in the Pacific from U-Boat patrols in the Atlantic.
Coral Sea action
On May 6, 1942, the two opposing forces probed the horizon in attempts to locate one another. Aboard the Yorktown, a young naval officer, assistant gunnery officer Ens. John d'Arc Lorenz of Portland, who, when interviewed many years later, recalled a cloudy day with Japanese scout aircraft passing overhead.
The cover concealed the big American carrier. However, the Japanese did manage to attack and sink two American escort vessels, the destroyer Sims and the oiler (tanker) Neosho.
The U.S. forces had better luck when its naval aircraft bombed and sank the Japanese light carrier Shoho. It was during this attack that a pilot radioed the famous war cry "Scratch one flattop!!" as the enemy vessel disappeared under the waves in 10 minutes.
May 7 was witness to more legendary events. Toward evening, as the Yorktown was landing its own scout planes, Lorenz spied unfamiliar aircraft in the landing pattern. His suspicions that the planes were Japanese were confirmed when the escorting heavy cruiser USS Portland opened fire on them. The Japanese planes were between the Portland and the Yorktown, so anti-aircraft shells whistled right over the Yorktown.
"We hit the deck," Lorenz recalled.
Ted Hatton, an electrician's mate from Oregon, confirms this bizarre tale. From his vantage position on the Yorktown's hangar deck (one below the flight deck) he heard the Portland firing.
"When I looked out, I could see Japanese planes in our landing pattern. I think that we shot down about six…but I don't think that they were all Japanese!" Hatton said.
May 8 was the big day of the battle for the Coral Sea. The two opposing fleets finally managed to locate one another. The Japanese, enjoying clear weather over the American vessels, struck the USS Lexington, damaging it to the extent that it had to be abandoned after one of its magazines exploded. The Yorktown also was struck by a bomb that penetrated its flight deck and exploded several decks below. The blast and ensuing fire killed dozens of young seamen.
Lorenz was forever critical of the Navy for using a certain type of gray paint to cover the bulkheads. "Didn't they realize that paint burns?" he would ask years later.
Although the Japanese fleet was under a cloud cover, American aircraft managed to damage the fleet carrier Shokaku to the extent that it had to be withdrawn to the Japanese base at Truk for repairs. It would be unable to participate in the decisive naval engagement at Midway, just one month hence.
Who won at Coral Sea?
Historians have argued this point for eight decades. As the first naval engagement where opposing fleets never came within sight of one another, the contest was automatically historic. But as to who prevailed, the answer is in how one gauges the results.
In terms of the exchange of ships and materiel, the Japanese probably came out ahead. A light carrier and damaged fleet carrier against the American's loss of the Lexington, a destroyer and tanker is a better result.
However, considering that the mission of the American task force was to prevent a Japanese landing on New Guinea and their capture of Port Moresby, the mission was hugely successful. No Japanese troops made the landing. Moreover, the battle would pay unexpected dividends a month later when the Japanese effort to invade and capture Midway Atoll would be without the air support of the carrier Shokaku.
The Japanese, noting the bombing of the Yorktown, assumed the ship was sunk. But it was not. It was able to limp back to Pearl Harbor and undergo hasty repairs in time to be able to join U.S. naval forces in the defense of Midway.
Midway: June 4-7, 1942
American cryptanalysts at Pearl Harbor led by Commander Joseph Rochefort had broken a crucial Japanese coded message. The communique indicated that, on June 4, the Japanese intended to attack and capture a target designated as "AF." Other intelligence pointed to Midway Atoll, but Nimitz needed to be certain before committing a carrier defense force.
Using a brilliant ploy, American forces on Midway were instructed to send a message in plain language to the effect that the atoll's water desalinization facility had broken down. It wasn't long before Rochefort's group intercepted and decoded a Japanese message stating that "AF is having problems with its water system." So Midway as the Japanese's target was confirmed.
What then occurred during the American defense of Midway Atoll has been termed "miraculous," "incredible" and even "providential." Suffice it to say, if in the days leading up to the battle, one single thing had unfolded differently than it did, the United States would not have prevailed, and the Japanese would have occupied Midway.
There are dozens of such factors that can be fully discussed only in a much longer writing. But America did win the Battle of Midway and the fate of Hawaii as well as the U.S. fleet was secure. This article limits itself to but a few factors and to the valor of one officer serving aboard the Yorktown, Ens. John d'Arc Lorenz of Portland.
The American plan for Midway's defense was to send three of its aircraft carriers in two task forces (16 and 17) to a position northeast of the atoll. It was named "Point Luck." These were the hastily repaired Yorktown, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and the USS Hornet (CV-8), recently of Doolittle Raid fame. From there it was assumed that the Japanese fleet would be pinpointed and an attack against it could be launched.
It is important to note that the Japanese commanders were at this time totally unaware that their plan had been discovered. They also were unaware of the presence of the American carriers. And it also is important to know that while the American vessels were equipped with radar, the Japanese ships were not; they depended only upon scouting aircraft to see over the horizon.
The Japanese fleet was known to be approaching Midway from the Northwest and Southwest. It was sighted by a PBY Catalina patrol bomber aircraft in ample time for an attack to be launched from Midway's airfields. Only one aircraft from Midway, a B-26 jury-rigged with torpedoes, managed to strike and damage a single Japanese ship.
June 4: Day of Miracles
Early on the morning of June 4, the Japanese launched a massive air attack against Midway with the intention of "softening up" the island's defenses for the invading land forces. American aircraft launched from Midway were unsuccessful in thwarting this attack. In fact, being no match for the superior Mitsubishi Zero, most of the Marine fighters were shot down.
However, as the Marines on Midway knew the air strike was coming, they had prepared well for it. They put up a strong defense against the incoming planes. So much so that the first wave of Japanese flyers was surprised by the ferocity of the resistance. "Could they have known we were coming?" they asked themselves.
More air attacks against the Japanese fleet were sent from Midway, but not a single bomb or torpedo struck an enemy ship. Almost all of the American aircraft and their crews were lost.
However, Japanese Admiral Nagumo faced a dilemma. Should he launch a second attack against Midway as his flyers recommended? To do so, he'd have to rearm the aircraft he'd kept in reserve. These planes were loaded with torpedoes and ordnance designed for attacking ships in case the U.S. fleet was sighted, but so far it had not been. So Nagumo ordered a second attack on Midway and the switchover to bombs began.
But before the rearming could be accomplished, a late-launched scout plane reported the presence of ships to the northeast. At first the rearming for the Midway strike continued until the presence of U.S. carriers was confirmed — so Nagumo again halted the rearming in favor of a return to anti-ship ordnance — but it was too little, too late. Time had run out.
While all this was going on, the Japanese fleet had come under constant air attack by aircraft from both Midway and now the American carriers. All of these attacks were totally uncoordinated and not one succeeded in striking an enemy ship. Almost all of the aircraft were shot down. But they had managed to scatter the four Japanese carriers and force them to break their close formation. These attacks also brought down to sea level the fighter air cover that had been protecting the Japanese fleet overhead.
Just at that moment, by a fantastic coincidence and in two totally uncoordinated attacks, groups of American SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the Yorktown and Enterprise appeared overhead. They screamed down nearly vertically from thousands of feet overhead. There was no opposition to these attacks. Three Japanese aircraft carriers — the Kaga, Akagi and Soryu — were sitting ducks. Their crews did not detect the attack until the SBD's had already released their bombs.
The result was a conflagration on all of the vessels. Because of the rearming of the Japanese reserve aircraft, ordnance lay loose on the hangar decks, full fuel lines snaked everywhere. In the span of some 10 minutes, three of Japan's biggest and best carriers, along with their crews, were destroyed.
But one aircraft carrier escaped being attacked. The Hiryu had been under a slight cloud cover and was (as yet) undetected. It managed to launch its own strike and its aircraft shadowed, unseen, American planes back to their carriers.
As John Lorenz told it, the day of June 4 was nearly ideal. He and his Yorktown gun crew of Mount No. 3 situated just aft of the ship's island, were lazing in the sun while still manning their battle stations. They had no knowledge of the great drama unfolding to the west. Lorenz recalls the fear expressed by some of his young crewmen, whom he had trained and treated like his own sons. One lad was afraid that "he wouldn't make it" through this day.
Suddenly the alarm went up — incoming enemy aircraft had been detected.
The first Japanese attack against the Yorktown was by high-flying "Val" dive bombers. "Our 1.1 AA guns couldn't even reach them before they dropped their bomb," Lorenz said.
However, one "Val" was hit and exploded into four pieces. But not before it had dropped its bomb. "It floated right at me," Lorenz remembered. "It came down in slow motion."
This bomb was the first to hit the ship. It exploded inboard of the center of the flight deck near Lorenz's Gun Mount No. 3. Splinters of wood deck planking, shrapnel and chunks of steel flew everywhere. Instantly, nearly every crewman on Gun Mount No. 3 was killed or severely wounded.
Lorenz was dazed but otherwise unhurt. Most of his crew lay dead but bombers were still attacking. He shook off the effects of the blast and quickly assembled another gun crew. Performing the work of 20, Lorenz and just three other sailors continued to operate the antiaircraft guns.
Two more bombs hit the flight deck before the attackers were driven off. Of the eighteen Japanese planes that had attacked, only three flew away. Nevertheless, they had dealt the Yorktown a great blow.
But the damage was not lethal. The ship's crew swiftly repaired the damaged wooden flight deck and patched the holes in the updrafts of the boilers. Although once slowed, the Yorktown at last regained speed and got back into the fight.
Lorenz then noticed smoke pouring from the "ready magazine" that was located directly under mount 3 and that elevated it above adjoining Mount 4. He tore open the hatch and saw that shrapnel had torn through the magazine's bulkhead and perforated many of the hundreds of 1.1-inch ammunition rounds that were stored inside. That, in turn, ignited the powder in the casings. Sparks sprayed everywhere.
"It looked like the Fourth of July" he observed.
It was just a matter of time before the magazine would explode. So, using his shirt, he helped the sailors inside the magazine beat out the blaze.
Now he could turn his attention to his fallen crew. Most were killed right at their battle stations, including the lad who feared that he "would not make it." Another boy died in his arms. The bodies were removed to a makeshift morgue and aid station located one deck below in the pilot's ready room.
Lorenz had loved his guys, yet in an instant they were gone. Emotions of both grief and guilt swept over him. But there was little time.
The Second Attack
By 1:40 p.m. (1340). the ship's air operations had been restarted; aircraft could again take off and land. Then the rotating radar units atop the main mast stopped and pointed ominously to the west. Another air attack was incoming.
This time the attackers were Nakajima "Kate" torpedo planes from the Hiryu. Unlike the dive bombers, these aircraft came in horizontally, skimming low along the wave tops to release their torpedoes. In quick succession the great carrier was struck twice on the port (left) side and immediately started to take on seawater. It began listing to that side … first 17 and then 26 degrees. At this rate it appeared that the ship would soon capsize. At 3 p.m. (1500) Captain Elliot Buckmaster ordered the crew to abandon ship.
Getting off the stricken Yorktown was easy. Just jump from the flight deck into the water. But Lorenz had something he must do first … he had to say farewell to his fallen comrades.
He started down to the deck below when he encountered Captain Buckmaster, who was conducting a last inspection of the vessel.
"Get off immediately, Ensign," he instructed Lorenz. "She's going to roll over."
But when Lorenz explained that he was going to visit his crew one last time, the captain relented. "Very well … do it quickly … then get off the ship!"
Lorenz quickly descended down a gangway to the ready room. The power in the entire ship was off so the area was totally dark. He snapped a lantern from its bracket on the bulkhead and cast its red beam around. The crew lay just as he had left them, except for one. When he played the light on the face of Bill Sullivan, a young sailor from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he saw an eye twitch. He was alive!
Instantly he knew what he had to do. But he could not haul the husky boy up to the flight deck alone. He needed help. He rushed topside.
The first man he encountered was Ensign Bryan Crisman, the ship's disbursing officer. Crisman was carrying a rope that he was planning to tie to a sea bag that he'd stuffed with the ship's currency and other important records. But no one had come by to collect the material. Now the rope would have a better use as young Sullivan's lifeline.
After pushing the carrier's wooden target sled overboard from the fantail, the two officers carried Sullivan to the stern, tied the rope under his shoulders and lowered him 90 feet from the sloping flight deck into the warm water of the Pacific. Lorenz and a third officer jumped in with him.
Using the sled as a raft, the trio drifted for what seemed like hours. Sullivan was still unconscious, so his head had to be held out of the water.
Lorenz saw a beehive of activity near the listing Yorktown; rescue boats were shuttling between the carrier and the USS Fulton that had pulled alongside to pick up survivors. However, it was plain that the three were drifting away and no one had yet spotted them. It would not be long before they'd drift out of sight.
He had dropped his sidearm when he went into the water, but Lorenz hoped that the other officer had not. "Fire your .45 into the air three times," he ordered. The gun was drawn and pointed in the air. ("Don't drop it and let's hope the damned thing still works!" he thought.)
When the group surged to the top of a swell, the officer pulled back the slide chambered a round and pulled the trigger. The gun fired … then two more times. Within minutes they spied a whaleboat heading their way.
They'd made it.
The rest of the story
The Japanese carrier Hiryu, which had launched the attacks against Lorenz's ship, was itself sunk later in the day on June 4 by American SBD dive bombers.
The Battle of Midway emerged as the turning point in the Pacific War. Never again would the Japanese be on the offensive. It is considered one of the most important naval battles of all time.
The American victory at Midway was not fully understood for some time. As it turned out, the Japanese could never replace the four large carriers or the aircrews that it had lost on June 4. Unlike the United States, Japan did not have the massive industrial resources to replace such losses. At the end of the war in September 1945, the United States had in service some 150 aircraft carriers of various types and classes. The Japanese had none.
Before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, planner of that strike, warned that Japan would "awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." He advised that if Japan could not prevail within six months, American industrial strength would change the odds in favor of the United States.
The Battle of Midway was fought just three days short of those six months.
Seaman Sullivan survived. Wounded too badly to return to action, he was discharged from the Navy and returned to Grand Rapids. He died at the too-young age of 38. Before Sullivan died, John Lorenz named one of his own sons after him.
Sullivan's daughter, Maureen, learned only decades later of her father's experiences at Midway. When told the story, she suddenly realized that if it had not been for Lorenz's valor on June 4, 1942, she and her siblings would never have been born.
Ens. Bryan Crist survived the war. In 2000 he read an early version of Lorenz's story and realized for the first time that it was John that he had assisted in saving seaman Sullivan's life aboard the Yorktown on June 4. He immediately telephoned the Lorenz family in Portland only to learn that John had passed away just weeks before. They never were able to share their experiences.
For his gallantry at Gun Mount 3 during the battle, Ens. John d'Arc Lorenz was presented with the Navy Cross, America's second-highest award for bravery. His citation recited his valor in continuing to operate Gun Mount 3 in the face of an enemy attack. It did not mention his saving the life of Bill Sullivan.
Lorenz could never shake the memory of June 4. Using his own words, he "stayed drunk for a month" afterward in Honolulu trying to erase the mental image of his fallen lads. He did not succeed. Throughout his remaining years he would openly weep at their memory.
When Lorenz returned to Oregon in August, 1942, he married his sweetheart Delight McHale. Together they raised three sons. He enjoyed a successful career in Portland as an insurance claims manager. He passed away in 1999.
This story is part of an ongoing series of Pamplin Media Group stories on the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.
A story on Pearl Harbor can be found here.
A previous story on the internment of Japanese-American and Japanese immigrants can be found here.
A previous story on the Doolittle raid can be found here.
Don Bourgeois is a freelance writer whose works have appeared often in Pamplin Media Group's annual Salute to Veterans special sections.
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