John d' Arc Lorenz was born in Minnesota in 1919 and was a member of the "Great Generation" that lived through the Great Depression. In those days, the young helped support the family by going to work. He made Christmas wreaths that he sold to businesses. John also worked in a foundry (casting metals) for 25 cents an hour. After entering the University of Portland to study medicine, he discovered that he loved the sea. This led him to leave the university and enlist in the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 1940.
He was admitted to the Navy's first OCS class which was held aboard the WWI battleship USS ILLINOIS, anchored in New York's East River at 136th Street. Only one third of the class of 1600 candidates would graduate. His determination and the help of an MIT candidate led him to succeed in being a graduate of the first class of the OCS. He celebrated his graduation with his classmates at the famous Astor Hotel in NYC. Female companions were provided by New York's City College. The celebration continued into the night and ended with a tour of Central Park with the young ladies, in horse drawn carriages.
Yearning for excitement and adventure, he requested and was granted gunnery duty aboard the USS YORKTOWN. After graduating from gunnery school, he caught the YORKTOWN in Pearl Harbor in January 1941. At the time, the YORKTOWN was still deploying the Grumman F3F, a bi-winged fighter. His assignment aboard the carrier was to command number three gun mount. This was an elevated gun platform just aft of the island. The anti-aircraft battery consisted of 1.1 guns and an 18 sailor crew. Being twenty-two at the time, the much younger crew considered him a surrogate father and, as such, he loved them in return.
In April 1941, the YORKTOWN passed through the Panama Canal on its way to the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier began its operations in the Atlantic by trading patrol duty with the USS WASP. Eight months later, John returned to Norfolk where he entered a drug store to make a purchase. He was surprised to see no one behind the counter. Looking around, he observed a number of people in the back of the store, huddling around the radio and listening intently to the broadcast. The news had broken. Pearl Harbor had just been attacked!
Lorenz immediately returned to his ship. The carrier was promptly ordered to depart. To his wonder, the YORKTOWN proceeded to the middle of the harbor and dropped anchor. No one really knew, including the commanders, what to do. So, the carrier sat still until receiving further orders.
A few days later, the orders came. She received new 20mm anti-aircraft guns to replace the lighter 50 caliber machine guns, and new aircraft were loaded to replace the outdated aircraft aboard. On December 16, 1941, the YORKTOWN left Norfolk Harbor never to return again.
Until early February 1942, the carrier delivered aircraft and staged attacks on the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Orders were received for the YORKTOWN to return to Pearl Harbor for the first time in almost a year. John was stunned by the site of twisted metal and pooling fuel oil. The Arizona was still recognizable with her burned supra-structure rising above the water at a hideous angle. His heart was filled with rage and grief. His only thoughts now were revenge. That opportunity would come in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
In May, the YORKTOWN was dispatched to the waters off northern Australia to counter Japan's attempt to capture Port Moresby in the southeast corner of New Guinea. He marveled at the beautiful deep blue color of the water and how war could be waged in such a beautiful environment. The YORKTOWN was joined by the carrier LEXINGTON in late April west of the New Hebrides Islands. The Battle of the Coral Sea began with an American dive bomber attack on Tulagi, an island northeast of Guadalcanal. A few days later, history was made when a sea battle was joined for the first time using only aircraft carriers (May 7-8 ). John experienced a number of strange and heart-rending events during the battle. He witnessed the strange occurrence of Japanese planes trying to land on the YORKTOWN at night, believing this carrier to be one of their own. After the LEXINGTON had received multiple direct hits by both Japanese torpedoes and bombs, she was still sea-worthy, but internal explosions rocked the carrier when a spark set off gasoline explosions in the motor-generator room. He suffered through the heart-breaking emotion of seeing U.S. destroyers deliberately torpedo and sink the LEXINGTON, so that the carrier would not get into Japanese hands. His last ordeal was experiencing a direct bomb hit on the YORKTOWN's flight deck, six feet starboard of the center line of the ship. The carrier damage was mostly below deck. Still able to make 24 knots, the carrier headed to the island of Tongo to refuel for her voyage back to Pearl Harbor. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 27, and thanks to the work of civilian and navy personnel, she departed seventy two hours later to join the ENTERPRISE and HORNET northeast of Midway Atoll. Now, the three U.S. carriers were waiting to ambush the Japanese striking force at Midway.
On the morning of 4 June, Lorenz was neither aware of the Japanese air strikes against Midway Atoll's air strip and installations, nor of the failure of Midway's aircraft to inflict any damage on the Japanese carrier force. He was, however, well-aware of YORKTOWN recovering its own scout planes and the launching of its own planes for an attack against the Japanese fleet at 0838.
John waited in silence at his gun station until noon time, when his eyes became fixed on Japanese dive bombers breaking through the U.S. carrier air patrol (CAP) and heading directly toward the YORKTOWN.
One dive bomber was successful however, obtaining a direct hit on the carrier's flight deck, 10 feet inboard of the island. Instantly, 16 of the 18 sailor crew manning the number 3 AA gun were dead. He was one of the lucky few, and although dazed, he was still able to observe sparks emanating from the magazine under the gun mount. Opening the hatch, he saw an amazing sight, shrapnel from the exploding bomb had penetrated the brass casings of hundred of shells. It would not be long before the magazine exploded. Using his shirt, he and the magazine crewmen beat out the flames, bringing the situation under control. The fire was out! Satisfied for the moment, John returned to his gun mount along with three other crewmen, to operate the AA guns while the attack continued. In the end, four men did the work of twenty.
In the meantime, YORKTOWN had two additional direct hits by dive bomber attacks, and the ship only had to wait for a few hours before the Japanese torpedo planes dove in for the attack. At 1355, the torpedo attack began, and the great carrier sustained two direct torpedo hits, jamming the rudder mechanism and severely damaging her steam and electric power. The ship began to list steadily, and with the fear of her capsizing, the order was given to abandon ship.
Captain Elliot Buckmaster personally ordered John to leave the ship, but Lorenz wanted to visit his dead crewmen before he left the carrier. Permission was granted and he proceeded below the flight deck. When he reached the crew-men, the area was totally dark and all power on the ship had been lost. He removed a lantern that was attached to the bulkhead and shone it around the area. His men laid still in the darkness and he knew he would never see them again. Suddenly, he came across William Sullivan and to his disbelief detected eye movement. He was alive!
Without a moment going by, Lorenz scrambled topside to enlist the assistance of another ensign, Byran Crisman, the ship's Disbursing Officer. They hauled the stocky unconscious sailor up the tilted gangway to the flight deck. They carried him to the stern where Sullivan was lowered fifty feet by rope into the water.
[A side bar regarding the story behind the rope. After Crisman received thousands of dollars from the natives of the Tonga Islands in exchange for foodstuffs and other items, he returned to the carrier and placed the cash in a sea bag. The rope he had in his possession initially was to be used to hang the sea bag from the side of the ship to be collected when the expected salvage party would come to save the carrier. However, when the time came to chose between money and a human life, Crisman chose the latter.]
Lorenz and Crisman jumped into the water, gathered some debris to hold onto and held Sullivan, keeping his head out of the water. The trio drifted from the YORKTOWN and away from rescue parties who were picking up survivors. When almost out of sight, they decided to address the situation. John had dropped his gun before jumping into the water. Luckily, Crisman still had his .45 strapped to his shoulder and hopefully, it was not too wet. When they reached the crest of a wave, Byran pointed his gun skyward and three shots rang out. Within minutes they were rescued.
Safely back in Honolulu, John recuperated in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel along with the other survivors, courtesy of the Navy. He received the Navy Cross for his heroism at Midway. He retired from the navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and returned to his home town of Portland Oregon. After the war, he was interviewed by Walter Lord, who was impressed enough to include the story in his book: Incredible Victory. He and his wife led a rich and exciting life, before John died on October 31, 1999.
Don Bourgeois, who was one of his closest friends, was kind enough to provide the Foundation with his biography of John Lorenz on which this tribute is based.