Ordinarily a six-month repair job after the damage in the Coral Sea battle, the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was in dry dock at Pearl Harbor only three days, being patched and welded around the clock. The Navy had decoded a Japanese plan to attack Midway Island. Two dozen enemy ships were headed there. The Yorktown, its hull patched by huge steel plates, rushed out of dry dock with welding still underway on board.
Two U.S. naval task forces, including the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, and their screens of support ships, rendezvoused northeast of Midway Island. Scouter planes spotted four Japanese carriers. About noon on June 4, the Yorktown‘s planes were engaged in a dogfight with enemy planes. They also managed to bomb a Japanese carrier, which later sank.
The ship’s guns filled the sky with black smoke, but several Japanese dive bombers slipped through Combat Air Patrol and attacked the carrier. Bombs smashed into the ship and exploded below decks, crippling the boilers and starting fires.
About three hours later, while repairs were being made, two more blasts slammed into the carrier. Torpedos.
The port side rose, then fell to a list of twenty-seven degrees. Sailors were ordered topside for life jackets. Donald Wilson and all those below dashed up ladders with battle lanterns. Soon the blue and white “abandon ship” signal was hoisted. Don scrambled over the lifeline on the fantail and leaped into the ocean. He treaded water for an hour. Air raid alerts scattered the nearby ships three times during the rescue. Donald was one of over 2000 exhausted survivors eventually pulled out of the Pacific.
The Japanese retreated, having lost all four carriers–four of the six that had been part of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Don’s parents in Iowa were so relieved to get a letter from him dated after the Coral Sea battle, which was a month earlier. Leora wrote, “Dear Son Donald, We were so glad to get your letters even if you can’t say much. It means a lot to us to get them saying you are OK.”
But when then they heard the news that American troops on Midway Island had been in a battle, they prayed that Donald’s ship hadn’t been in on the fighting there.
In the Pacific, Donald’s ship had been crippled but didn’t sink. They decided to try to salvage the carrier, and asked for volunteers. One by one, thirty officers and 140 enlisted men–including Donald Wilson–dangled from ropes across in a bosun’s chair from a pitching and rolling destroyer to the eerily silent Yorktown.
Donald clambered down ladder after ladder to his battle station for tools and began to connect submersible pumps. When he later came up for air, he grabbed a sandwich and coffee, which had been sent over from a nearby destroyer. The destroyer’s GQ alarm began to blare.
Don jumped up in time to see a torpedo spread rushing toward him in the mirror-flat ocean–four long torpedoes, props turning, gliding in the clear water.
Two of the torpedoes–from the Japanese submarine I-168–plowed into the crippled Yorktown. Don started to run but was jolted back to where he had been sitting. Both the Yorktown and the destroyer rocked from the heavy blasts. The destroyer immediately began to sink.
Loose gear scraped and banged. Don headed for the Yorktown’s fantail–the spot where he had abandoned 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, Donald again plunged into the sea.
He was rescued by one of the ships that had circled the dark, silent Yorktown during the night. The carrier’s list was less, but it had settled deeper into the ocean.
The next morning’s salvage attempt was called off when the doomed ship began to sink. Donald was asleep on the deck near the engine room. Someone nudged him awake. Weary sailors stood at attention. Nearby ships half-masted their colors. At sunrise, the USS Yorktown, flags still flying, rolled over and sank.
Donald Wilson, a Yorktown “plank owner,” had served on that ship since before its 1937 commissioning. Her whole life, as he put it. All of his belongings, including letters and pictures from home–among them graduation pictures of his brothers and sisters (including my mother’s)—sank with his ship into Davy Jones’s locker north-northeast of Midway Island.
Front pages of the newspapers at home reported only that a U.S. carrier had been hit in a battle at Midway, that some planes had been damaged, a few lost, that American casualties had been light.
But the Yorktown had lost 86 men. A burial ceremony was held at sea.
E 1/c Donald W. Wilson received a citation for being part of the salvage attempt.
Later in 1942, Donald was promoted to CEM, Chief Electricians Mate. Age 26.
That Gallant Ship: U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5) by Robert Cressman.
Family letters during the war, and letters from Uncle Don decades after the war.
My story about Uncle Don Wilson, a humble hero.