Battle of Midway survivor speaks at Patriots Point
MOUNT PLEASANT — Navy veteran John Hancock is among the dwindling number of aging sailors who survived a Japanese aerial attack.
And he did it high on a perch during the turning point of the Pacific war.
“The sky was full of 'em,” Hancock, 87, recalled while describing the waves of torpedo planes, dive bombers and fighters that swarmed around the aircraft carrier Yorktown during the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.
Handcock fired so many bullets from his .50-caliber machine gun that day it “burned the barrel out,” he said Monday during an appearance at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.
As historians know, the carrier Yorktown that's open for tours at Patriots Point is not the same ship that fought at Midway. That ship was sunk toward the end of the three-day battle, a victim of Japanese torpedoes.
But before the original Yorktown was lost, it became a focal point of the fighting that finally halted years of Japan's military expansion.
The battle erupted six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. An overconfident Japanese Navy sent an invasion force toward the tiny Pacific atoll of Midway. The goal was to capture the island's airstrip and pull the U.S. Navy into a final Pacific showdown.
But since U.S. forces had already broken the Japanese code, the Americans were hidden, armed and ready. That's where Hancock and the Yorktown's bombers came in.
“They launched before day-break,” he said of the departing Yorktown planes. “You think to yourself, 'Maybe they'll find the Japs.' ”
They did. Pilots from the Yorktown and two other U.S. carriers would deliver a devastating assault, eventually sending four Japanese flattops to the bottom. But it was the afternoon counter strike by Japanese planes that became Hancock's war. First came the dive bombers, followed 45 minutes later by the torpedo planes.
“Our guys were tangling with 'em,” he said. “Some of 'em were falling in the water, flaming. Some of 'em were dropping bombs on us or making torpedo runs.”
Hancock, who was 17 when he enlisted, was made an anti-aircraft gunner because he'd been a quail hunter back home in Georgia and his commanding officers said he knew best how to “lead” a target.
During one assault, he remembered getting up-close looks at some of the Japanese pilots, especially one particularly menacing torpedo plane. The gunner in the rear was dead and his body was hanging out of the cockpit.
“I could see the pilot,” Hancock said. “I thought he was going to fly right into me.”
Eventually the torpedoes took their toll, causing the ship to list to its port side. Then came the order to abandon ship. Hancock went over the bow.
“I found out I was wounded because the saltwater was stinging my leg and neck,” he said.
Hours later, Hancock would be rescued by a destroyer. The injured Yorktown, meanwhile, floated on until torpedoes from a Japanese submarine delivered fatal hits.
Even with the loss of the Yorktown, the 4-to-1 ratio of carrier losses was both a military and political victory for the U.S., giving President Franklin Roosevelt breathing room to continue on after he'd faced intense pressure at home to strike back.
“The Battle of Midway bought Roosevelt time to continue that Europe-first strategy,” said Navy Capt. Thomas Bailey, deputy commander of Joint Base Charleston, a Midway panelist Monday.
Hancock, who also saw action in the Battle of the Coral Sea, remembers his time in combat as being boredom divided by terror.
“A battle at sea is kind of like an old-time summer thunderstorm,” he said. “It's just raining holy 'nell' for about 45 minutes. Then, it's over.”