The Battle of Midway
Guns for the Yorktown
Lt. Commander Miles A. Putnam,
by Ronald Russell
(The following originally
appeared in Veterans Biographies, distributed during the annual Battle of
Midway commemoration in San Francisco, June 2007)
In January 1939, at the age of
eighteen years and two days, Miles Putnam joined the Navy for a four-year
enlistment. After recruit training
at San Diego, he was sent to Norfolk, Virginia for training as a metalsmith,
followed by extended training as an aviation metalsmith. He was then assigned to duty with
Bombing Squadron 5 (VB-5) aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-5), then serving
with the Atlantic Fleet.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yorktown transferred to the
Pacific fleet and became a participant in history’s first carrier-to-carrier
naval battle in the Coral Sea. The
ship was heavily damaged by a Japanese bomb, but many of its aircraft also
sustained battle damage in aerial combat.
Miles and his shipmates in VB-5 were kept very busy restoring some of the
squadron’s SBD dive bombers to operational condition.
As the Yorktown underwent repairs at Pearl Harbor in advance of
the Battle of Midway, its air group was reinforced by squadrons from the USS
Saratoga (CV-3), also out of service for repairs. Merging the two air groups resulted
in an unusual name change for the squadron:
for the upcoming Battle of Midway, VB5 was to be designated “Scouting
Squadron 5” (VS-5), and has been identified as such in most history books. But the squadron’s proud mechanics
and other support personnel will quickly tell you that it was the men of VB-5
that kept those planes in the air.
Experience in the Coral Sea had taught Miles, by then an AM1/c rating and
the senior aviation metalsmith in the squadron, that the ship didn’t have nearly
enough antiaircraft guns. So he
crafted a stationary base on which to mount a pair of the .30 caliber machine
guns normally carried on the SBDs, and mounted it on the ship’s port side
catwalk, directly opposite the island.
He was firing those guns when the first of three bombs struck the base of
the island directly behind him. He
grabbed a fire hose nozzle while a shipmate charged its foam canister, but the
water pressure quickly gave out. He
and some fellow gunners then gathered several CO2 fire extinguishers and did
what they could to combat the flames and smoke from the bomb hit.
That damage was temporarily repaired, and Miles was back at his guns a
short time later when the ship was struck by two aerial torpedoes on the port
side, one just a little forward of his makeshift gun mount. He remembers looking down the
catwalk where numerous other gunners had been, and both they as well as the
catwalk itself were gone.
The order to abandon ship came soon after, and recalling advice from
others who had abandoned ship in the Coral Sea, he headed back to the fantail
where fire hoses had been deployed over the side for the sailors to descend to
the water. “I didn’t want to go
down on one of the ropes,” he says.
“Those who did it in the Coral Sea mostly got their hands severely burned. It was pretty easy on the fire
After swimming in the oily water for some time, Miles was rescued by the
USS Benham (DD-397), along with hundreds of other Yorktown
survivors. He was initially
transferred to the cruiser USS Portland (CA-33), then to USS Fulton
(AS-11) for the return to Pearl Harbor.
Needles to say, the expiration of his four-year enlistment in 1943 came
and went as an uneventful day—he and everyone else in the Navy was in it “for
the duration.” That duration ended
for him in 1945 while he was a Chief Aviation Metalsmith working at Ford Island
Naval Air Station in Hawaii. He
transferred to the Naval Reserve and retired as a lieutenant commander in 1965
after twenty-six years of combined service.
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