Metro-East News

Our War: Yeoman kept war diary for admiral at battles of Coral Sea, Midway

Frank Boo talks about his experiences in World War II.
Frank Boo talks about his experiences in World War II.

Not only was Frank Boo there for some of the greatest naval battles in American history. It was his job to write it all down.

Boo, a native of Waterloo, who now lives in Columbia, was senior yeoman for Admiral Frank "Black Jack" Fletcher, and his job was to follow around the task force commander and keep a war diary in shorthand. He stood side by side with Fletcher at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.

In 1937, Boo had no idea that in five years he would be in the middle of history, watching hundreds of men killed and wounded in the service of their country in some of the biggest battles ever for the U.S. Navy.

"I joined the Navy because it was the middle of the Depression and I needed a job," Boo said. "I wasn't trying to be a hero."

In late 1941, as clouds of war gathered over the Pacific, Boo was stationed on the cruiser USS Chicago. Sailors could sense that war was imminent. It was just a matter of when and where it would break out.

From top to bottom in the ranks, most thought an attack was most likely to take place at Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific. So on Dec. 5, 1941, the USS Chicago headed from Honolulu, Hawaii to Midway to escort the aircraft carrier Yorktown as it delivered 100 fighters to defend the island. While the task force was at sea, on Dec. 7 the guesses turned out to be wrong when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

While Frank Boo was out to sea, his seventh-months pregnant wife Leona was waiting for him back at Honolulu.

"I couldn't even see the attack, so that didn't scare me too much," Leona Boo said. "But the talk that the Japanese were going to invade was pretty frightening."

The invasion never came, but Leona Boo was shipped out to San Francisco for her safety.

For months, the Pacific Fleet patrolled aimlessly. But in March 1942 it tangled with the Japanese at Tulagi, sinking 19 enemy ships. In May, Boo was front and center for the battle --the first time opposing aircraft carriers faced off against each other -- in the Coral Sea. Carriers from each side simultaneously launched planes to attack their opponents.

"This is the only time during the war that I had the occasion to actually see our enemy," Boo wrote in personal memoirs. "The two carrier forces were so close together at one time -- estimated at 19 miles -- several of their pilots mistook the Yorktown for their own carrier and signaled (for) permission to land.

"Our pilots were returning at the same time and you can imagine the confusion," according to Boo. "Gunners hesitated to shoot at the enemy for fear of hitting our own planes."

The next morning, May 8, 1942, the battle resumed and the Yorktown was hit with three bombs in Boo's most memorable day of the war.

"A bomb exploded in the gedunk compartment, which was a place where you could get an ice cream or a snack," Boo said. "It killed 41 men, and I can still remember the awful smell of burnt flesh and burnt paint as we passed through the area just a few hours later for chow."

When he walked through the room, Boo said the bodies were gone. But the evidence of tragedy was still there. Bloody hand prints could be seen on the white sea bags along the wall where mortally wounded sailors tried to grab onto something in an effort to pull themselves to their feet.

Boo said the scene made him so sick to his stomach that he couldn't eat.

Meanwhile, things were worse on the Yorktown's sister ship, USS Lexington. Boo remembers seeing the Lady Lex "on fire from stem to stern" and watching, after she was abandoned, as U.S. Navy destroyers sank her to keep the Lexington from falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Yorktown headed back to Pearl Harbor the following day for what was expected to be several weeks worth of repairs of the war wounds it suffered at the battle of Coral Sea. Instead, it was out of port and back underway within 48 hours.

There were rumors on the ship that members of the repair crew were caught by surprise by the quick shove-off and were trapped on the ship when it left port.

The ship, under top secret orders, was headed to Midway Island and a date with its destiny. Meanwhile, Boo carefully typed a 35-page account of the battle of the Coral Sea for Admiral Fletcher, a task that took him four days with a manual typewriter. The report was finished and on the admiral's desk as the fighting began.

On June 4, 1942, the Yorktown was hit by three Japanese bombs, one of which went down one of the aircraft carrier's exhaust funnels, filling the ship with black smoke that made it impossible to work below deck. Admiral Fletcher decided to transfer to the cruiser USS Astoria and took Boo with him.

The men, along with top officers of the task force, boarded a small whaling boat and headed to the Astoria 1,000 yards away.

"I was scared to death," Boo said. "I knew that if a Japanese fighter saw us that the pilot would have known there must have been some pretty important people on board to make such a trip in the middle of a battle."

While her crew fought the fires, the Yorktown was hit by Japanese torpedoes and started to list heavily. The order to abandon ship was issued.

She floated lifelessly overnight, and a crew of volunteers was put together in the morning to see if the Yorktown could be saved. Boo was able to get a spot on the boat that took the volunteers to his old ship in hopes of rescuing the Coral Sea report.

"When we got there, the ship was listing so badly that we were able to step off our boat directly onto the hangar deck," Boo said. "Going aboard her was like going aboard a ghost ship," Boo said. "Everything was still. The only sounds we heard were the lapping waves against the deck. Darkness prevailed because the power supply was dead. The decks were slippery from oil and water."

Floating in the water around the boat were life jackets, shoes, torpedoes, ammunition boxes and personal items that belonged to sailors.

Boo's plans to find his report were quickly dashed when he was ordered instead to work with a detail that was identifying the bodies of those killed in the previous day's attack and burying them at sea.

"There were 21 men under a canvas tarp who had been killed while manning two guns," Boo said. "It's hard to imagine how bad a dead body can smell after being in the tropical sun for two days."

Boo snuck away and when he met the officer who ordered him to be on the burial crew, he claimed that he had been sent away by the man in charge of handling the bodies. Bent on trying once again to get his report, the captain erupted at Boo and told him he was going to work on a fire crew because if the blaze on the Yorktown wasn't brought under control, neither the yeoman nor the report were going to get off that burning ship.

Boo spent the next several hours carrying containers of the firefighting agent foamite. Meanwhile, those who weren't fighting fires were pushing heavy objects off the deck to try and lessen the list and get the ship to sit upright.

It looked like the Yorktown would be saved. But then a crew member of the USS Hammond, which was tied to the aircraft carrier, was pumping water into the starboard side to keep the boat from keeling over to port, and shouted "torpedoes!"

Two torpedoes hit the Yorktown and two hit the Hammond, whose depth charges, torpedoes and boilers also exploded, causing further damage to the aircraft carrier.

"At the time of the explosion, the (Yorktown) listed so far to the port side that I was standing in water up to my knees even though I was standing on the hangar deck about 10 feet from the side," Boo recalled. "As quickly as I could, I crawled to the high side and saw the Hammond was sinking next to us. Men were in the water dead, dying and drowning."

The salvage party abandoned the Yorktown for good, sliding down a line to a tugboat. And Boo had to leave without his Coral Sea report.

At 6:30 the next morning, June 7, 1942, it was obvious the Yorktown wasn't going to survive. The ship's captain, Elliott Buckmaster, requested the captain of the destroyer USS Gwenn to sail as close as safely possible to the aircraft carrier.

"I would guess that we were probably about 1,000 feet away from her when she finally upended and plunged under the water, bow first," Boo said. "I don't think there was a man watching this spectacle, especially the former crew members of the Yorktown, without tears in his eyes."

Although he lost 50 percent of his hearing from a nearby depth charge explosion, Boo stayed in the Navy until 1957 when he retired as a chief warrant officer.

"I'm very proud of my service and that I was part of American history," Boo said. "If I had one wish for Memorial Day, it is that every American young man should spend some time in the military.

"I think it would give them more appreciation of what this country stands for."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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