The Battle of Midway – A Navy Doc’s Journey of Survival (Part 1 of 3)

By Capt. Joseph Page Pollard, interview conducted by Mr. Jan K. Herman, historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

Midway graphic 2In June 1942, (then Lt.) Pollard was a 38-year old Navy physician serving aboard USS Yorktown (CV-5). From his role as assistant medical officer, Pollard would witness first-hand the battle that would change the tides of war in the Pacific. Below is an excerpt of his recollections.

I was in sick bay early in the morning of the 4th of June until about 10:30 holding eye, ear, nose, and throat sick call.  At that time I went up to the flight deck area and assumed my duty at Battle Dressing Station Number 1. I remained at Battle Dressing Station Number 1 throughout the rest of the day until I abandoned ship. 

When I arrived at Battle Dressing Station Number 1, we were arming our airplanes. At that time I found out that one of our scouting planes that had gone out earlier that morning, had returned and dropped a note on the deck stating that the Japanese fleet had been seen and that they were approximately 200 miles away in a certain direction coming towards us at 25 knots. Of course, 200 miles was beyond the range of our airplanes to go out and be able to get back. So we did not launch at that time.

The bombers and torpedo planes were lined up with the fighter planes ahead of them ready for takeoff. They took off as soon as the Japenese fleet was deemed to be within range. Until they returned, we were free at the battle dressing station to check our supplies, get ourselves ready for whatever might happen.  This covered lunch hour where I, for instance, went down to the ward room and got a sandwich and then came back up.

We did not make a strike until about 2:30, as I recall. In the interim time, we had the opportunity in the battle dressing station to break out all of the gear we needed and make sure that our litters were in place and we were ready to receive casualties when and if they came. Our planes took off.  It was an uneventful departure.

About 2:30 our planes began to return. They were positioned around the carrier with the worst shot up bomber first followed by the other planes. We took aboard five or six TBDs that were shot up so you wondered how they would still stay in the air. We had fighter planes over the ship to protect the ship and one of these fighter planes ran low on fuel. So they slipped that plane into the landing line and he came in too hot and too high and dove for the flight deck. His airplane somersaulted and ended up upside down with him under it.  

As the flight surgeon, I was the first one under the airplane to attempt to get the pilot out. He crawled out under his own power and we headed back across the deck to my battle dressing station. The Enterprise attack was finished. The ship was over the horizon out of sight but as I looked out in that direction, when they launched I could see their airplanes in the air and it looked like a swarm of bees way out in the distance.

As I was on the way back from that crashed airplane to the battle dressing station, general quarters was sounded. I could look up in the sky and see airplanes up there. I could see dog fights. I saw a plane spiral down into the ocean streaming fire. The anti-aircraft guns right beside me were firing full blast. The sky was full of flak puffs that you see in the pictures. The Japanese airplanes were upon us.

 As I was looking at what was going on, my good chief pharmacist’s mate caught me by the arm and said, “You and I better take cover.”  So we went into the battle dressing station and lay down on the steel deck.   

Peculiar things go through your mind at a time like that. I’m lying down flat on my stomach on the deck and I’m thinking about. . . “If this deck rises under me, my head is going to hit the steel deck and that won’t be good.”  So I took an arm and put it under my head. Then I said to myself, “You know, if my arm gets caught between my head and the deck, I’m gonna have a broken arm.” So while I’m figuring all this out, all hell breaks loose. 

As the bomb goes off right outside my battle dressing station and we’re right in the middle of it. We had three bombs that caused us casualties. One was a delayed action bomb that went down very close to the stack all the way through the island structure, through the ward room below, and down into the engineering spaces. And when that bomb went off, it blew out the fire for the boilers–power for the ship. So with power gone, the ship went dead in the water and, of course, all the lights went off.

Another one that caused casualties was a bomb that missed the ship but hit the water very close to the stern of the ship on the starboard side. The catwalk in that area was full of men who had taken cover off the flight deck. Bomb fragments from that bomb swept through the catwalk and caused a lot of casualties. It killed a number of people.

Those casualties came to my dressing station. Incidently, my dressing station incorporated the entire island structure and all of the flight deck, and the catwalks to the flight deck.The bomb fell right outside my station. It was very close to Number 3 and Number 4 anti-aircraft gun mounts which were right outside my station. The gun mounts were manned by about 40 men, 20 of whom were killed instantly and the rest were casualties of one sort or another that descended on me. A number of people who were around the flight deck in unprotected areas were hit and they descended on me. It was bedlam. People came in so fast, they just swarmed in. The ones that couldn’t walk, of course, were brought in by people who were around and by the pharmacist’s mates. We put them in the good old Navy wire stretchers we had which served our purposes wonderfully well.

Part two of this story will post June 5. Stay tuned.