CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. - 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.
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.
“Even 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 said.
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 destroyer.
Hancock jump off the ship wearing nothing more than his skivvies (underwear) and cover.
“As I 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 DD 411.”
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.”
Hancock 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.
The ceremony 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 great interest.
Bailey spoke following Hancock’s remarks.
“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.
“We 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.”