CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (6/6/2012) - On the quiet morning
of June 4, 1942, 30 minutes before day break, the sailors aboard the
USS Yorktown (CV-5) were ordered to man their battle stations as
Japanese bombers were quickly advancing on their position.
U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Bailey, Joint Base Charleston deputy
commander, speaks with John Hancock, retired U.S. Navy captain and
Battle of Midway survivor, before the Battle of Midway ceremony on
board the USS Yorktown (CV-10), S.C., June 4, 2012. Hancock was on
board the USS Yorktown (CV-5) during the battle. He served as a
machine-gun operator and suffered wounds to his neck as well as a
collapsed lung during the attack. Photo by USAF Airman 1st Class Dennis Sloan
The roar of the approaching aircraft engines and the
sound of their wings cutting through the morning air filled
the sailors' ears.
The Battle of Midway had begun.
Before the men knew it, Japanese torpedo bombers were
flying past the Yorktown at lightning speeds dropping
propelled fish destined for destruction into the ocean.
Dive bombers were swooping down from the clouds so close
to the ship's deck, the men on board could see the deathly
stares in the pilot's eyes.
Amidst the chaos and
carnage was a 17 year-old-man, John Hancock, a Georgia
native who had never ventured further than a few miles from
his farm. He found himself on the Yorktown seated behind a
.50-caliber machine gun in the middle of the Pacific Ocean
filling the skies above with bright streaks of light.
“I learned to shoot as a kid when I went quail hunting
with my father,” said Hancock.
Hancock was assigned
to the .50-caliber rather than .20-caliber machine gun,
because he had proven to be a proficient shot less than a
month prior, during the Battle of Coral Sea.
though I was still shooting birds out of the sky during the
battle, I had to lead them a little more than the quail back
home, since they were moving a lot faster,” Hancock jokingly
Firing overhead, he was unable to shoot down a
plane from his position and watched it fly past. He turned
to his left to witness his shipmates firing at the same
Japanese plane. It was finally hit. The plane, looking like
Swiss cheese and spewing smoke and flames from its engines,
began to barrel roll. As it fell from the sky, the bomb it
was carrying came off and landed directly on the Sailors who
had shot it down moments earlier.
The bomb from the
fallen plane struck the flight deck and the gun stations
blowing Hancock from his seat. Barely surviving the
explosion, Hancock stood up with a blood-drenched neck from
shrapnel wounds and a collapsed lung. He walked over to the
men who were firing behind him.
“The gun stations
were awash with blood ... arms, legs and heads everywhere,”
said Hancock. “My best friends, who I had gone through basic
training with, were among those gunners. It was hard for me,
a young man, to see so much death and destruction.”
After a second torpedo hit the Yorktown, the crew was
ordered to abandon ship. Hancock navigated through the holes
and fires on the deck, grabbed his life preserver and jumped
overboard. It was still daylight when he hit the water. It
wasn't until dark that he was picked up by a U.S. Navy
Hancock jump off the ship wearing nothing
more than his skivvies (underwear) and cover.
drifted away from the mangled ship and my fellow Sailors, I
looked down at the life preserver and read what was printed
on the top; ‘floatation device good for up to
24-hours,'”said Hancock. “I never really thought about if I
was going to die. At that age you just think about what is
going on at that moment. I'll never forget the numbers
painted on the side of the ship that rescued me, which read
Hancock was rescued from the Pacific Ocean
when Sailors aboard the destroyer formed a human chain and
lifted him from the water. He was then taken to the ships
sick bay to have his wounds evaluated.
The Battle of
Midway is regarded as the most significant naval battle of
the Pacific Campaign during World War II. At its conclusion,
the United States claimed an overwhelming victory, sinking
four Japanese carriers and one cruiser, destroying 248
carrier aircraft and killing 3,057 Japanese forces. In
contrast, the U.S. Navy only lost one carrier, one
destroyer, 150 carrier aircraft and 307 service members.
Hancock recovered at home for a month or so and returned
to the Navy to fight another day. Instead of shooting at
aircraft from a ship, Hancock found himself in the cockpit
of a fighter jet patrolling the skies he once filled with
machine gun rounds.
“Since there was a shortage of
pilots in the Navy at the time, enlisted sailors were
trained and sent to the air,” said Hancock. “Later, all the
enlisted pilots were commissioned.”
transitioned from active-duty to the Reserves and retired as
a Navy captain.
Seventy years later, Hancock,
weathered from war and time sits in a white chair on a stage
aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10) at Patriots Point in Mount
Pleasant S. C., to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the
Battle of Midway. The room is filled with family and friends
as well sailors, young and old. On stage with Hancock is
U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Bailey, Joint Base Charleston deputy
commander, U.S. Marine Corps Col. Brian Murtah, Marine Corps
Air Station commander and David Clark, Patriots Point Naval
and Maritime Museum senior curator.
started with a short video of the battle. Once the video was
over, the crowd applauded and the floor was opened for
Hancock to speak.
“Battle at sea is like a
thunderstorm,” said Hancock. “It's as if everything is
crashing around you and there is no break, but then all of a
sudden it is over and you realize you are still alive.”
Even though Hancock's voice was faint through the
microphone, the entire audience listened to his words with
Bailey spoke following Hancock's
“I want to start by saying thank you to
everyone who has joined us today for this important
ceremony,” said Bailey. “What I took away from this ceremony
is how important this battle was to the overall success of
the war. Without the strategic planning and execution from
men like John Hancock, a victory at the Battle of Midway
would have not been possible.”
The Yorktown, which
Hancock served on during the Battle of Midway, lies three
miles under sea halfway sunken into the mud. Even though the
ship sank 70 years ago, it appears untouched with the
barrels of the machine guns still pointing skyward as the
men who abandoned ship left them. The ship may be sunk, but
the memory of the men who served upon it lives.
hold these ceremonies to remind not just those who were
around during the time of the battle, but the youth as
well,” said Hancock. “They need to know what we did to
preserve this great nation's freedom.”
By USAF Airman 1st Class Dennis Sloan
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