It has been called the greatest naval battle in the history of the World and the turning point of World War II in the Pacific. The United States Navy, still reeling from a near mortal blow at Pearl Harbor and severe blows inflicted on the fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea, was looking for a victory, a victory which would turn the tide of the war by diminishing the air power of the Japanese. On June 4, 1942, sixty years ago today, the U.S. Navy, culminating weeks of brilliant strategic planning, code breaking, and sheer luck, got its chance. The place; Midway Island. The result: a decisive victory. The cost; the loss of too many men and one of the greatest carriers in the fleet, the U.S.S. Yorktown. Aboard the legendary carrier were Jack Thigpen and Hubert Wilkes, two young men from Laurens County, Georgia.
The day was June 4th, 1942. Admiral Chester Nimitz knew exactly where the Japanese fleet was. Their destination was Midway Island. His men had set the trap and Admiral Nagumo’s fleet was taking the bait. The battle started the day before and the results were not what Nimitz had expected. Initial assaults by Japanese fighters inflicted a near mortal blow on the first American defenders. By fifteen minutes after ten o’clock on the morning of the 4th, the Japanese Navy was winning the battle.
“The ship was by now listing badly,” Wilkes recalled. The Captain issued orders to abandon ship. Turmoil was the order of the minute. Hubert was on the fourth deck. He managed to scramble up to the hangar deck and onto a ladder on the high side of the ship. “Every rung was full of sailors. The sailor on the bottom rung was afraid to turn loose. Since the ship was listing badly, it was about fifteen to twenty feet from the end of the ladder to the water on that side of the ship,” Herbert remembered.
Hubert heard a sailor that he knew, but not very well, talking to the chaplain, who had on two life jackets. The sailor told the chaplain that he couldn’t swim and needed the extra life jacket the chaplain was wearing. The chaplain refused to give up his second life jacket. Hubert was furious. Knowing he could manage to swim without a jacket, Hubert gave the sailor his life jacket, stripped off all his clothing down to his undershorts, and started down toward the treacherous waters. He told the sailor to go down the ladder even if he had to step on someone to get down. Both Hubert and the other sailor he had assisted went down the side of the ladder. As they got to the bottom rung, the man didn’t want to turn loose.
Hubert pushed the man off the ladder and then followed him into the water. After reaching the safety of the port, Hubert learned what type of man he had rescued, a liar. He had given up his jacket to a man to had lied to the authorities about his rating. Once the men managed to get off the ship and into the water, the danger was not over. They remained for nearly two hours in water permeated with the Yorktown’s oil and stained with the blood of their fellow sailors. Wounded men were floating, trying to stay alive. Hubert kept one eye out for Japanese fighters who might strafe the survivors. The other eye was trained downward for any signs of the fins of sharks, who might be lurking for a mid afternoon snack.
To say the least Hubert said “we were uncomfortable.” “I was thankful that God was on my side,” Hubert remembered as he was being rescued. After climbing up onto a destroyer sent to rescue the survivors, Hubert asked one of the men aboard just how deep the water the water was. Even though he knew he could drown in six feet of water, he took no comfort in the fact that a recent depth sounding revealed that the water where the Yorktown was attacked was twenty thousand feet or nearly four miles deep.
The survivors remained on the destroyer overnight, before transferring to a cruiser, where they got a chance to take a real bath and clean up. A sub tender took them back to Pearl Harbor, where it finally occurred to Hubert the true devastation he had suffered. Although he had emerged from the ordeal with his life, he lost all of his money, clothing, records, and personal belongings when the ship went down. Especially distressing was the loss of sixteen pairs of white uniforms and a baker’s dozen of cartons of cigarettes, which he hoarded for a future assignment in San Diego.
The Yorktown herself was not as fortunate. A Japanese submarine, which had continued the attack on the Yorktown after nightfall, fired two torpedoes into the disabled carrier as she was being towed back to Pearl Harbor. The great Yorktown did not die in vain. The battle changed the outcome of the war in the Pacific. The Americans lost one carrier, three hundred seven men, and one hundred forty-seven planes.
The Japanese navy, while at the high water mark of its dominance of the Pacific waters, lost four carriers, three hundred thirty planes, and thirty five-hundred men, including an inordinate amount of their best fighter pilots. Jack Thigpen and Hubert Wilkes made it home.
Hubert graduated from Auburn University in 1951 with a degree in Agricultural Education. He later earned a master’s degree in Agricultural Education and his 6-year Degree in Supervision and Administration. Hubert worked in the public school system for more than thirty years.
Hubert died on June 19, 2015 and is buried in the Blue Springs Baptist Church cemetery,
My thanks to Johnnie Faye Taylor for her interview of Hubert Wilkes)