WASHINGTON – The night before the Battle of Midway in June 1942, a small group of torpedo plane pilots gathered in then-Ensign Jack Crawford's room aboard the USS Yorktown, and along with Crawford's pilot roommate, toasted one another with drinks of torpedo alcohol and grapefruit.
"Only after the battle did it strike me," Crawford said, remembering that night nearly 72 years ago. "No torpedo plane that flew from the Yorktown ever came back. They had to have died knowing they were going to, because they weren't well enough equipped."
Even at 95, age has done little to slow down Crawford, who went on to a long career as a pioneer in the Navy's burgeoning nuclear program before retiring as a captain. A self-professed "amateur student of history," Crawford remains a tireless advocate for recognizing the historic significance of the Battle of Midway.
Headed for trouble
Graduating from an accelerated class at the U.S. Naval Academy in December 1941, Crawford originally received orders to the USS Oklahoma stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Only days before his graduation, the Oklahoma was sunk during the Japanese attack. Instead, he attended radar school before receiving orders to the aircraft carrier Yorktown.
Crawford said he arrived at Pearl Harbor in May 1942 only to discover that the Yorktown was in the Battle of the Coral Sea, so he was assigned as an assistant to a lieutenant on base. When the heavily-damaged Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs, Crawford was unhappy with his situation and eager to get to sea. Acting on a tip that the Yorktown would soon be repaired and underway the following day, Crawford followed a frustrated captain until he got his detachment orders signed.
"He said, 'Son, if I were you, I'd recognize you're heading for trouble if you keep doing business this way in the Navy,'" Crawford said. "I just listened to the lecture and grabbed my pen and took off and I got aboard at 10 o'clock that night, and the next morning we're back out of the drydock."
New to the ship, Crawford was assigned to be junior officer of the deck. Standing watch at 4 a.m. on the morning of June 4, 1942, he was one of the first to hear the incoming message, "Many planes headed Midway." He didn't know that shortly before, U.S. forces had broken the Japanese code and discovered the plans to attack Midway. He entered a meeting with the officers as the crew planned the course of action for the impending fight.
"It was really heartening to know that we know, and were in a position to hit them before they hit us," he said.
A few short hours later, Crawford stood on the hangar deck watching waves of torpedo planes and dive bombers attack the ship. Three bombs rocked the ship, causing heavy damage, but Crawford said excellent damage control from the crew kept her afloat. That luck would soon run out.
"I remember the tremor that went through the ship when one torpedo hit back on the port side," Crawford recalled. "It was a tremor that went through the whole ship almost like you were bending a ruler, and then bam, another one! The ship took a quick list to port about five degrees and then gradually crept up."
Less than one week after boarding for his first sea tour after the academy, Crawford was sliding down a rope off the side of the Yorktown into the Pacific.
He said his first reaction was anger. "I didn't know whether or not there were sharks in the water there," he said. "Turns out there wasn't, but I didn't know it, and nobody else did, either. And meanwhile, we're all lined up with oil and you don't know whether a submarine's going to light that off and we're all going to be toast in a few minutes, so it was a pretty uncomfortable feeling."
The USS Russell picked up Crawford and other survivors while a repair party attempted to keep the severely-listing Yorktown from sinking. A Japanese submarine later interrupted those plans, sinking both the Yorktown and the USS Hammann, which was providing nearby support.
Crawford returned to Pearl Harbor with an idea that the battle had been a great success, but not fully realizing the impact until later. Sailing back in to Pearl Harbor, he decided to pay a visit to the captain that had signed his detachment orders only days earlier.
"He said, 'You again!'" Crawford laughed. "I said, 'Captain, you were absolutely right, I was headed for trouble, but I think it came a little faster than you or I thought!'"
Crawford shipped east, where he soon found himself on another carrier, the USS Santee, this time headed for the invasion of North Africa. It was there Crawford said he realized that had the U.S. lost at Midway, he and everyone else aboard would have been headed west to the Pacific for a more intense battle with Japan rather than being able to send personnel east to the European and African fronts.
A converted commercial oiler, the Santee wasn't exactly Crawford's ideal duty station, but he said it helped him edge closer to his ultimate goal of getting a naval appointment to the engineering school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I recognized the importance of being at sea, and I wanted to be at sea," Crawford said. "My long range objective in the Navy was to go to MIT and become a Navy constructor, as they were called at the time. It never occurred to me that I wanted to do anything else. I wanted to be a naval officer to design and build ships."
After campaigns in the Mediterranean Sea, Crawford's determination and sea time paid off. He left for MIT and went on to shipbuilding. He was later interviewed by Admiral Hyman Rickover and spent most of the remainder of his career in the Navy's nuclear propulsion program, where he helped build the world's first nuclear-powered submarine and aircraft carrier.
Crawford pointed out a framed photograph of that carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), hanging just inside the doorway of Crawford's small home on a tree-lined street near Bethesda, Maryland, recalling his years of service.
It was tough work, Crawford said of his job under Rickover. "One of the rewards of being in this organization is people are carefully selected and they realize how fortunate they were to be on the cutting edge of technology," he added.
After spending five combined years at MIT and earning two master's degrees, all while serving in the Navy, Crawford offered advice for the younger generations following. "You can't guarantee you're going to be successful, but if you want to do it, be prepared to accept opportunity when it comes your way," he said, echoing advice the president of MIT offered him years ago.
With more than 50 years of his life in service to the U.S. government, both in the Navy and as a civilian, Crawford said he would do it all over again—not that he's finished yet. He still performs work as a consultant to different agencies.
"If you learn how to design and build ships or build houses or build cities, keep doing it forever," he said. "At age 95, I'm still doing it."
"What I like to look back on is I did my duty," Crawford said proudly. "There aren't many things you can take out of this planet. You can't take money out of this planet, but you can take with you, wherever you go, consciousness of duty faithfully performed."
'Go forth and proselytize'
One of Crawford's main missions now is spreading knowledge about the Battle of Midway—a battle he argues is still much under-appreciated for its historic impact.
Overshadowed by the calendar week proximity to D-Day, Crawford said not enough people know how important Midway was in stopping the steady march of Japanese forces across the Pacific and changing the face of World War II. Events growing in popularity, such as the anniversary celebration each June at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., help educate new generations, he added.
Still, he wanted more. "I wanted to see a good book on Midway, and there wasn't one," Crawford said. So he called a friend, historian and retired Naval Academy Professor Craig Symonds, whom he helped inspire to write a definitive book on the battle.
"Midway, at a minimum, was the most decisive naval battle since Trafalgar, and perhaps the most strategically decisive victory since Salamis," Crawford said, offering a brief historical lesson on British Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, and the Greeks over Persian Emperor Xerxes at Salamis.
Borrowing a line from remarks by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger at a Midway 61st anniversary commemoration, Crawford said he tries to "go forth and proselytize" the role of Midway in American history.
"The impression that battle had on me was those torpedo plane pilots," Crawford said of his roommate and fellow aviators. "That will never go away. That battle was won for a number of reasons, but one of them was courage."