The Battle of Midway
Sam Laser in Sky Control
by Ronald Russell
7 October 2006
Note: the following is adapted from
a video interview of Yorktown veteran Sam Laser, entitled “World War II
Remembered: an Oral History of Arkansas Veterans,” Volume VIII.
* * *
Sam Laser was born on 22 December 1919 in
Clarksville, Arkansas. The family
later relocated to Little Rock, and he finished high school and started college
there in 1937. Four years later,
and just prior to graduating from the University of Arkansas law school, he was
attracted to service in the Navy.
That was due in part to one of those offers from a recruiter that seemed too
good to be true: since Sam could
type, he would be enlisted immediately as a Yeoman Second Class (Y2/c), the
equivalent of an army sergeant (E-5 in the modern enlisted rank structure).
Sam had no problem accepting a great deal
like that, although he was unprepared for what came next: he was immediately sent to the USS
Yorktown (CV-5) for duty, with no basic training or other training of any
kind. It was a daunting experience—Sam had never even seen a ship before, let
alone set foot on one, and suddenly he was a member of the giant carrier’s crew,
with duties and expectations that are normal for a seasoned petty officer with
years of service. That made things
very rough at first, but in time he learned the ropes through on-the-job
training and guidance from his shipmates.
Sam reported aboard the Yorktown on
the evening of 6 December 1941, and a few hours later he was at war along with
the rest of the nation. The
Yorktown was transferred to the Pacific Fleet, where it participated in some
of the first carrier raids of the war.
Sam’s battle station was “Sky Control,” the elevated structure high above
the bridge. At 126 feet above the
water line, he had a commanding view of everything the ship did for the
remainder of its brief but violent wartime career. You can get a good view of the
Yorktown’s Sky Control from
this photo of the ship at Midway, just after the dive bomber attack. Sky Control is the highest structure
in the photo, just under the national flag.
Sam has many gripping personal memories of
service aboard the Yorktown.
One of the bitterest concerns the casualties suffered at the Battle of the
Coral Sea. “After a lull in the
fighting, the crew was permitted to go down to the mess deck to get something to
eat,” he said. “The bomb that hit
us killed a lot of men below decks, and about fifty-five of them had been
temporarily laid out on the mess tables.
They hadn’t been covered yet, and many of them had horrible wounds—blood
streaming from their eyes, missing limbs, and so on. We had to walk past all that to get
into the chow line, and the only thing they had was crackers and salmon. For at least five years after that,
I couldn’t eat salmon. Every time I
tried, I’d see and smell those mangled bodies.”
At the Battle of Midway, Sam told of firing
his .50 caliber machine gun at Japanese bombers from Sky Control. “It was sort of futile—by the time
they got in range of my gun, they’d already dropped their bombs. I could see them dropping toward us. One bomb, a fragmentation type, hit
just aft of the island, wiping out the after 1.1-inch gun crew. I was in the Gunnery Department
aboard the ship, and those guys were my friends.
I’ll never forget one of them, named Corky. He was strapped to his seat in the gun tub when the bomb went off, and it
cut him clean in two. When I saw
his body, still in his seat, it looked like a surgeon has removed the upper half
with a saw. Scenes like that were
hard on some of the men.
Occasionally one would wake up screaming in his bunk. We got used to that sort of thing
after a while.
“All of the men I served with were very
brave, with one exception. You had
to do your duty in combat on a ship, for if one guy fails to do so, havoc can be
the result. It’s not like on a
battlefield where Sgt. York might show up to save you. You’ve got to do your job for the
sake of your buddies.
“The one exception was an officer, a
lieutenant who was in charge of Sky Forward, the five inch gun director, just in
front of Sky Control. He was a
senior lieutenant, with maybe twenty years in the service. When we got into combat in the Coral
Sea, he has arrived at the precise moment for which he’d been training all those
years. And what did he do after all those years of training? He froze, dropped to the deck in a
fetal position, and stuck his thumb in his mouth! A first class fire controlman kicked
him out of the way and took over direction of the guns.
“One other guy was supposed to be
court-martialed for failing to promptly unlock a magazine [ammunition locker]
when we were attacked—he’d been drinking.
But his court martial never happened because all records of the incident
went down with the ship at Midway.
“When the aerial torpedoes hit, the ship
shook like a Terrier with a mouse in its teeth.
We listed about 30 degrees to port, and the captain was afraid that we
were going to capsize. All
electrical power was lost; there wasn’t much anyone could do. We abandoned ship. I put on my kapok life jacket and
went in the water for the next three hours.
Funny thing about that kapok life jacket—it had a three-inch tag on the
side of it that said ‘Warning: not good for use over 24 hours.’ Now who the hell would want to put
on a life jacket if he knew he was going to sink in it in twenty-four hours?”
Sam was eventually pulled out of the water by
the destroyer USS Benham. He
first transferred to a cruiser and then to the USS Fulton, a sub tender
dispatched from Pearl to retrieve Yorktown survivors from the task force
warships. After a brief stopover in
Hawaii, he was assigned to Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 6 at NAS Alameda, where
he encountered a familiar circumstance.
The Navy decided to commission him in 1943, making him a brand new
ensign. But once again he had
absolutely no training as an officer.
Barely familiar with his new uniform but not at all about being an
officer beyond what he’d observed as a yeoman, Sam went straight from taking his
commissioning oath to his new duties.
He likes to say that he was probably the only man in the Navy who had
both an enlisted and officer career without a single day of training of any
Released from active duty at the end of 1945,
Sam returned to the University of Arkansas law school where he graduated in
1947, thanks in large measure to the G.I. Bill.
He remained in the Naval Reserve as a JAG officer, retiring as a
lieutenant commander. Now 87, he
still actively operates his law practice in Little Rock.
* * *
Photos of Sam Laser
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