The Battle of Midway – A Navy Doc’s Journey of Survival (Part 2 of 3)

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

USS Yorktown's valiant fight to survive during the Battle of Midway. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)
USS Yorktown’s valiant fight to survive during the Battle of Midway. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

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

The first thing we had to do was stop bleeding. There were people with feet blown off, with arms blown off, with legs blown off, and with all sorts of body wounds. Many of them required tourniquets to stop the bleeding. We gave morphine and got the stretchers in on the deck of the battle dressing station. We filled the deck with stretchers and we didn’t have a enough room so we spread back into the parachute loft behind us and filled that with stretchers. Then we moved into the passageway and put stretchers there. A little incident happened there. 

We had stretchers in the passageway and there were fires in the island structure from where the bomb had gone done through. So the firefighters were fighting the fire. They dragged a hose—a water line down the corridor that we had stretchers in. And when they turned the water on, it turns out that the hose had been punctured by bomb fragments and our patients were in the middle of a shower. Of course, we had to move them. 

When I could get out of my dressing station, I went out on the flight deck and there were Number 3 and Number 4 gun mounts. One of the first things I saw was the trainer of one of the guns sat in a seat. And the seat was low enough so inside the splinter shield around the gun mount his legs and pelvis were completely undamaged, but above the belt, all that there was left of him was a few vertebrae of his backbone just sticking up and sort of hanging over backwards. And the rest of him had completely disappeared.

The ship went dead in the water when the bomb blew out the fires down below. And one of the worst things we thought was that black smoke was pouring from the stack. And we are dead in the water and we’re putting out black smoke that must have been able to be seen for miles and miles and miles. We said, “We are a sitting duck.” We knew that the Japanese had a submarine in the area and also we knew that the Japanese knew where we were now. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

The chief engineer was able to get the fires re-lighted, and when the fires got re-lighted, our power came back on, our lights came back on. Puffs of white steam came out of the stack and oh, were we happy! Furthermore, from being dead in the water, the ship started to move so we were hopeful that we would get underway. And sure enough, we did start to get underway.

In commemoration of the Battle of Midway, fought June 4-7, 1942. The U.S. Navy effectively destroyed Japan’s naval strength by sinking four of its aircraft carriers. It is considered one of the most important naval battles of World War II. Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) created posters for a Battle of Midway remembrance dinner. (U.S. Navy photo illustration/Released)
In commemoration of the Battle of Midway, fought June 4-7, 1942. The U.S. Navy effectively destroyed Japan’s naval strength by sinking four of its aircraft carriers. It is considered one of the most important naval battles of World War II. Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) created posters for a Battle of Midway remembrance dinner. (U.S. Navy photo illustration/Released)

At this time, a very fortunate thing happened to us. The senior medical officer of the ship came up to see how we were doing up in Battle Dressing Station 1. We seized the opportunity to use his influence to get the forward aircraft elevator for use to take our stretcher patients down to the hanger deck. So we lowered the forward elevator with stretchers and got them down to the hangar deck. It just turned out to be very fortunate because if we’d had to abandon ship with all those stretchers up there, I don’t know how we could have ever gotten them off. Patients, of course, were supposed to go to the sick bay but we had another attack and those plans didn’t go through.

As we were moving stretchers below, the ship speed got up to 22 knots and we required 30 knots for flight operations. But we were on the way to 30 knots. Some of our airplanes were still flying around. The airplanes had enough fuel to get to one of the other carriers, which was over the horizon—the Enterprise primarily—left from that landing circle that I described further back. They left that circle and headed for the Enterprise.  So those planes got to the Enterprise. The airplanes that didn’t have enough fuel to get to the Enterprise were stuck with us with no place to land. So they were landing around us in the water.  Most of them were trying to land close to the ship hoping that the pilots could swim to the ship. They had life jackets and were in pretty good shape.

But when we got to 22 knots, it was decided that we would go back to accepting the planes that could get in. So that’s when we had to abandon using the forward elevator to take casualties below. But most of our stretcher patients had gotten down. Of course, all the ambulatory patients had gone down to the sick bay and our problem was the stretcher patients.

At that time, before we could take on planes, GQ sounded. The Japanese knew where we were then and they had sent another attack against us. These were torpedo planes but we didn’t know that at the time.

So GQ sounded and I headed into the battle dressing station and lay down on the deck. In very short order, there was a terrific noise and the ship shuddered and the deck came up under me. It couldn’t have been anything but a torpedo. And I’m lying there and I said to myself, “Boy, that’s one torpedo. We can take that one but I hope we don’t get any more.”

By the time I got that through my mind, here came another one and the ship began to list. That’s a bad feeling to have the ship begin to list on you. And it listed and listed and kept going over. It went over to where I thought it was about a 30 degree list. But reading the reports of it later, it was a 26 degree list. But that’s a pretty good list.  When I went out on the flight deck, I felt that I should be very careful at the way I walked. If I slipped on the flight deck, the angle was so great that it was quite possible that I would skid all the way across the flight deck and go in the water on the far side. The angle of the deck was that steep. 

At this time, the word came over the speaker, “Prepare to abandon ship.” There was a patient in a stretcher by me whose foot had been blown off.  He heard that the same time I did as I was there walking by him.  He said to me, “What does this mean for us?” And then he turned his head away and figured he’d never make it.  I didn’t have any answer for him and didn’t know what to say.

This patient was one of the few stretcher patients that we had left in Battle Dressing Station Number 1 and so we took those stretchers, tied ropes to them, and let them over the high side of the ship down to where there were life rafts below.  Most of the life rafts, by that time, were full of casualties that had been put on from the hangar deck level but we added the few that we had topside. There was a very cooperative lieutenant. His name was Wilson. He helped me get the lines together to get the stretchers over the side, which I appreciated very much at the time.

Part three will publish June 6. To read part one of this series on Lt. Pollard, click here.