The Battle of Midway – A Navy Doc’s Journey of Survival (Part 3 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 3In 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 taken from an oral history session.

Then after we got the stretchers off, I began to search the island structure and the catwalks to see if we’d missed anyone that was alive. We didn’t want to abandon ship and leave anybody aboard who was alive. I searched the island structure and then went aft where the bomb had gone off underwater and had swept a lot of the catwalk. I didn’t find anyone alive.

There was an “Abandon ship,” but I was somewhere and didn’t hear it. So I didn’t know the sign was on and everybody else was leaving and I was still aboard ship looking for wounded. 

I’m back there by the catwalk and I look over and there’s the water down there full of heads of people bobbing in it.  There are life rafts beside them. And I’m standing there thinking that “Gee, I better go.  Everybody else is over there.  Maybe I had better go over the side.”

I noticed a lone figure coming out of the island structure and walk across the deck straight for me. And I said to myself, “Who could this be?” And as he walked up to me, I recognized him. It was Capt. [Elliott] Buckmaster. He was our skipper. So he walked up to me, and I can remember the words he said: “Navy regulations state that the commanding officer shall be the last to leave the ship and I’m ready to go.”

So I said, “Aye, aye, sir.” As I went to the rope, I said, “Captain, I just finished inspecting the catwalk back aft and I can assure you that I couldn’t find anyone who was alive.” That was the last we said, and we went down. There were two ropes down there. The captain and I are going down two ropes side by side. I’m a little ahead of him. The captain stayed with his line and went right on down to the water. When I got to the armor belt, I was getting tired. We didn’t have knots in the rope and we had to let ourselves down with the strength of our arms.

When I got to the armor belt, I decided that I would stop and rest a minute. The ship was listing enough so that one could walk on the armor belt without any danger of falling over the side. So I walked back along the armor belt about 30 feet or so until I came to another line that was over. I decided to go down that line. One reason I took that line was because it went down to a life raft in the water that was loaded with litter and ambulatory patients and I wanted to be close to the patients.

As I was going down that line, part of my life jacket got caught in my hands and I started to slide on the rope. As I looked at the rope, it was covered with blood from both of my hands where I had cut the skin off my hands. I looked down and saw an open spot with no heads in it right below me so I turned loose and dropped the last 15 feet into the water. I swam over to the life raft and there was no room for anyone on it but there was a line around it so I held on to it.

The sea was fortunately calm but the water was covered with fuel oil. When the fuel oil gets in your eyes, it burns like fire. It gets up your nose and it gets in your mouth and you cannot help swallowing it. And when you swallow the fuel oil, you start to vomit to get it up. So, in the water, you spend a part of your time hanging on to a line and vomiting up black oil.

Meanwhile, the captain had come down and was in the vicinity of the same life raft. The destroyer Russell came by and sent a whaleboat over to pick up people. The whaleboat was towing a life raft. The whaleboat had too much speed and one of the mess attendants couldn’t hang on and fell off. He couldn’t swim. And there he is out in the water shouting and screaming and throwing his hands up in the air and kicking. So the captain swam over to hold him up. The captain was having some difficulty getting him quieted down. One of the men in the water swam over and helped the two of them and brought them back to the life raft.

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)

The life rafts were lined up alongside the ship the way they had been loaded. The way the sea was running, we couldn’t get the life rafts away from the ship. It seemed like there was almost a magnetic attraction between the ship and the life rafts. We felt we were in great danger because if the ship rolled over, which it might do at any time, the suction of the ship going down would take us all down with it. So we tried desperately to get the life rafts away from the ship. It turned out that the way we got them away from the ship was to paddle them along the side of the ship and go off towards the stern.  And that way we could get them off.

I was in the water two hours and a half. There was no room on the life raft so that was all the time in the water. The destroyer Hughes came by and several people were able to swim out and catch the cargo net on the side of the Hughes.

Then there was a submarine presence alert. They went to general quarters and the Hughes went to full speed ahead. It was quite dangerous. If you are close to the side of the side of the ship and it goes to full speed ahead, the suction from the propellers pull under the ship and through the propellers. You either don’t want to be close to the ship or you want to get aboard the ship.

We had a couple passes by that were unsuccessful. The Hughes came by and put lines over but they weren’t able to get anyone to speak of. The Hammann came by and everything seemed to be quiet around so I decided I couldn’t stay in the water much longer. There was no place on the life raft and there was no point in just staying there and drowning so I might as well swim for the Hammann. So I did and fortunately I caught hold of the cargo net that was over the side. The thought that went through my mind was when I reached out and got a grip on that cargo net, whatever the Hammann did wasn’t going to make any difference to me. You would have had to pull my arm off to get me off that thing.

I clambered up the cargo net.  And when I got up to deck level, two or three people reached over and grabbed me and I was safe.

The destroyers were not able to recover the casualties. The cruiser Astoria came around and they picked them up.  The captain ended up aboard the Astoria. I believe that the captain was picked up by the Hughes and transferred to the Astoria.  As far as I know, we picked up no casualties aboard the destroyers. They had all been put aboard life rafts and then they were picked up by the Astoria. When I got to Pearl Harbor, I went up to the naval hospital at Aiea Heights to make rounds on all of the patients that had come from my battle dressing station. As I was walking by the foot of one of the beds, I see someone with a big grin on his face.  He was the fellow that had said to me, “What is going to happen to us.”  So I grinned back at him. We were both very happy.

To read part one of this series on Lt. Pollard, click here, to read part two, click here.