MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Seventy years ago on Monday, John Hancock fought in one of the epic battles of World War II, spraying Japanese planes with a machine gun, seeing his buddies die when a gun mount on the USS Yorktown was obliterated and bobbing in the water for hours awaiting rescue with shrapnel wounds.
The 87-year-old veteran of the Battle of Midway sat aboard the carrier’s namesake at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, describing his experiences on the 70th anniversary of the American victory that proved to be a turning point in the war in the Pacific.
Hancock attended a program commemorating the anniversary of the battle fought June 4-7, 1942.
“A battle at sea is like a thunderstorm,” said Hancock, who lives in Athens, Ga. “It’s all over you at once and then it’s over with. And then it’s like ‘Holy Smokes, I’m still alive ... “
Badly damaged on the opening day of the battle, the first Yorktown sank three days later despite repeated salvage attempts.
Hancock vividly remembers the two torpedoes that hit Yorktown, sending a catwalk with Marines sailing through the air. An earlier bomb hit one of the plane elevators, knocking him to the ground and stopping the ship.
Hancock said he got the job as a gunner at the rear of the tower beside the flight deck because he learned how to lead and shoot quail as a kid growing up in Georgia.
He was on the ship for about six months and had fought during the Battle of the Coral Sea a few weeks earlier.
The Yorktown got back to Pearl Harbor after that battle, but was only given 72 hours to make repairs before it set out to sea again.
“We all knew something was going to happen,” he said.
The Yorktown launched its planes against the Japanese fleet June 4 but planes from the Japanese carrier Hiryu later located and attacked the Yorktown. By late afternoon, with the Yorktown badly listing, the order came to abandon ship.
Hancock remembers being in the water for four or five hours.
“I had one of those old kapok life preservers and I remember floating along and looking at the tag and it said ‘flotation assured for 24 hours.’” I was all by myself and I said if someone doesn’t find me, this is going to sink me with,” he remembered.
But he never doubted he would make it. “Kid’s don’t think about that. Kids live one second at a time,” he said.
After the war he didn’t talk about his experiences much because “we were too busy making a living and having kids and doing all those things.”
Now he talks to classes and groups whenever he has a chance.
“I know this sounds trite, but this is the greatest country in the world and the kids have to know that,” he said.