A Reunion In the Water
Peter L. Newberg on the Yorktown at Coral Sea and Midway
by Ronald Russell
(The following post is from the Battle of Midway Roundtable and appeared in Veterans Biographies, distributed during the annual Battle of Midway commemoration in San Francisco, June 2006)
The small town of Willmar, Minnesota is rather unique with regard to the Battle of Midway, for it is the home town of three of its veterans who by chance all wound up on the same ship during the battle One of the three was Pete Newberg, who joined the Navy on his 18th birthday in order to pursue education opportunities—an interest in amateur radio had fueled a desire for training in a related technical field. Training would have to come later, though, as the Navy needed seamen for its big new carriers. Thus upon completing boot camp in December 1940, Newberg was sent directly to the USS Yorktown (CV-5), where he requested and got assignment to “E” Division, the ship’s electricians.
During his first year aboard the Yorktown, the ship was engaged in neutrality patrols and convoy duty in the Atlantic, but transferred to the Pacific Fleet following the Pearl Harbor attack. Its first major taste of combat occurred in May 1942 in the Coral Sea. Newberg’s battle station was with the flight deck repair party, meaning that he had a front-row view of all the action occurring around the carrier. His most vivid recollection of the Coral Sea was a bizarre incident as darkness fell on the first day of the battle. Two Japanese pilots got their aircraft into the landing pattern for the Yorktown and were all set to trap aboard, thinking they had found their own carrier in the fading light! The first enemy pilot realized his error at the last possible second and abruptly banked away, passing directly over the landing signal officer. Newberg and the other topside personnel could plainly see the bright red insignia on the plane’s wingtips.
Newberg was topside again as Japanese bombs and torpedoes blasted the Yorktown at Midway. He was firing a .30-cal. machine gun on the port side catwalk when one of the torpedoes struck almost directly below him. He’s not certain exactly what happened for several minutes after that, because his next clear memory is of treading water near the listing carrier’s stern, kept afloat by his life jacket. A few minutes later he was amazed to see Harold Wilger, one his friends from Willmar, Minnesota, nearby in a small raft. Wilger was a radioman-gunner in one of the ship’s squadrons and had pulled the two-man raft out of his aircraft before abandoning ship. Newberg swam toward the raft and climbed aboard. Wondering exactly what to do next, the two looked out over the 2000-plus survivors in the water and miraculously spotted the third sailor from their home town, Bud Qualm, also from “E” division. Mere chance had brought the three Willmar men together in the oily water near the stricken Yorktown. Their raft was soon overwhelmed by other survivors, but the three made it to safety aboard the destroyer USS Benham (DD-397).
Upon return to Pearl Harbor, Newberg was transferred to the USS West Virginia (BB-48), raised from the bottom of Pearl Harbor and undergoing repair. He served aboard the battleship for the remainder of the war. After the expiration of his enlistment in 1946, he earned an engineering degree at the University of California and began a lengthy career in the petroleum industry.