By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Editor’s Note: Last night, speaking aboard the museum ship Intrepid at an event honoring the Battle of the Coral Sea, President Donald Trump discussed how impressed he was by the bravery of one American Sailor. It’s a sentiment shared by Naval History and Heritage Command Director Sam Cox who recounts the story of the pilot whose honor, courage, and commitment changed the history of the war in the Pacific.
On May 8, 1942, 24 SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Yorktown (CV 5) commenced an attack on the Japanese fleet carrier IJN Shokaku in the Coral Sea. As each bomber nosed over in near-vertical dives from 18,000 feet on the wildly maneuvering Shokaku, their windscreens and bomb sights fogged over so badly during the descent that the U.S. pilots were blinded, forced to release their bombs “by memory.”
Although one bomb hit the Shokaku very near the bow and started a serious fire, one bomb after another missed.
Finally one SBD, piloted by Lieutenant John Powers (U.S. Naval Academy Class of ’35), his wing on fire after being hit by canon fire from a Japanese Zero fighter, pressed his dive well below the standard minimum pull-up altitude.
Power’s bomb hit Shokaku nearly dead center and caused horrific and nearly fatal damage, starting massive fires and killing over 100 Japanese sailors. Unable to pull up in time, Powers flew through the frag pattern of his own bomb and crashed alongside the Shokaku.
Although 15 dive bombers off the USS Lexington (CV 2) would later manage to hit the Shokaku with one more bomb, it was Power’s bomb that knocked Shokaku out of action for the rest of the battle, leaving her unable to recover aircraft, and with damage so severe that she was unable to participate in the critical and decisive Battle of Midway one month later, where her presence could have easily turned that battle into a catastrophic defeat for the United States.
By the sacrifice of his life and that of his radioman-gunner (Radioman Second Class Everett Clyde Hill), Powers quite likely prevented the loss of the Yorktown at the Battle of the Coral Sea and changed the outcome of two of the most important battles of World War II. For his valor, Powers was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. Hill’s parents received his $10,000 G.I. life insurance policy payout.
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