On 24 August 1942, the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6) burned after being hit by three Japanese bombs. One struck near the number three elevator, plunging several decks before exploding, killing 35 men and starting fires in storerooms and quarters. Another penetrated the edge of the flight deck and detonated amongst the ready ammunition, destroying the number three 5-inch gun gallery and killing another 38 men instantly. The third struck abaft the island and started more fires.
The seven sailors stationed in the steering engine room suffered as the fires forward of them and above them burned. They had shut down the only ventilation into the space when the fans began pulling in smoke from the fires in the demolished gun gallery. The heat rose and men passed out as the temperature passed 160 degrees. After the aerial assault ended, a remote control system reopened the ventilation system, and water and foam poured into the compartment and into the cooling jacket for the starboard steering engine. The engine swung the rudder to port, then starboard, as the engine shorted out. The bridge ordered helm control returned, and as the alarm sounded, the last conscious crewman attempted to engage the working port steering engine, but collapsed. The rudder locked at 20 degrees right and the captain ordered the breakdown signal. The carrier’s escorts closed to protect her as she circled helplessly. A rescue party entered the space from above and pulled out the seven men (one of whom later died), but none of the rescuers knew how to engage the port steering engine.
Chief Machinist (CWO) William A Smith knew the steering gear well. He volunteered to reach the essentially abandoned space. An Enterprise plank owner and a 13 year Navy veteran, he loaded his pockets with tools, strapped on a rescue breathing apparatus, and attached a line to his waist. He stormed toward the engine room, only to be overcome by smoke and heat. Pulled to safety, he again went ahead and made it to the hatch before again collapsing and being hauled out. On his third attempt, Smith made it into the compartment and quickly assessed the situation and engaged the port steering engine. The helm answered on the bridge after 38 minutes of circling. For his extraordinary heroism and “remarkable presence of mind” in extreme conditions, Smith received the Navy Cross. The After Action Report noted that the steering casualty was the “most serious” and “might easily have led to the loss of the ship.” Changes to steering engine room ventilation and cooling systems ensued in the wake of the near-disaster.