George Weise was the last man rescued from the U.S.S. Yorktown before it sank into the Pacific Ocean during WWII’s Battle of Midway. Weise would live another 76 years.
By Gordon Anderson
Even though the injuries George Weise sustained in World War II stayed with him for the rest of his life, it was a long time before he talked much about them.
In fact, those injuries – which included a fractured skull that left much of his right side paralyzed – meant that Weise had a good bit of trouble speaking at all.
“When I was a kid, my dad couldn’t talk well,” said daughter Carolyn Weise, who lives in Cape Coral, Fla., but was in Sanford recently for her father’s funeral following his death at 97 years old in early March. “His speaking wasn’t good – it wasn’t quite a stutter – but the words were jumbled.”
As such, Weise and her sisters – one of whom, Donna Fancher, now lives in Lee County’s Carolina Trace community not far from where George made his home in the final decades of his life – didn’t know many of the details of their father’s war story until the mid-1990s.
That was when author Walter Lord conducted an interview with George for Incredible Victory, his New York Times best-selling account of the Battle of Midway in the war’s Pacific theater.
“When he talked to Walter Lord, he talked for hours without making a single mistake,” Carolyn Weise recalled. “We found it fascinating.”
Not only was it fascinating for Fancher and Weise to hear their father talk at length with such ease, the sisters were fascinated by the details themselves. Not only had George served at 21 years old aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Yorktown, one of the U.S. fleet’s most significant at the battle, he was final person rescued from the destroyer before it sank into the Pacific Ocean.
Born in Astoria, Queens in New York City in 1921, George Weise enlisted in the Navy in 1940, several months before the Japanese Empire’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
“I was a real dumb boot,” Weise wrote in a recollection of his time in the service that his daughters now have in a binder full of keepsakes and memories about his life. “It took me the longest time to figure out how to tie a bowline, at least two weeks. Fine way for a future boatswain’s mate to start off.”
It wasn’t long before George Weise found himself aboard the Yorktown, which in turn found itself at Midway in June 1942. Midway, by all accounts, is seen as a crucial juncture in the war, the point at which American forces not only denied the Japanese a repeat of their surprise at Pearl Harbor, but also put a hard stop to Japanese expansion into the Pacific.
Weise wrote that he’d transferred off of a phone desk and onto the ship’s flight deck not long before Midway because “if anyone was going to shoot at me, I wanted to be able to shoot back.”
And that’s how George Weise came to be manning an anti-aircraft gun in early June 1942, when a Japanese attack force came roaring toward the Yorktown outside Midway, an atoll several hundred miles northwest of Hawaii.
“We finally had a plane come a little off the center where we could shoot at it,” Weise wrote in that informal memoir. “However, he released his bomb right down the stack. Was told we got him, but I wouldn’t know. At that time I was blown over the stack to land on the flight deck. Sure glad no planes were landing or taking off. This all happened in the first attack. After all that I don’t know who took me anywhere.”
That’s the point at which the skull fracture occurred, along with other injuries that left his arm and leg in makeshift casts. But Weise was somehow – he wrote that he didn’t remember – able to make it to the ship’s sick bay, where a Corpsman in charge decided him to leave him as others were abandoning ship “because I was dying anyway.”
“I do not remember getting to the main sick bay,” he wrote. “The first thing I remember was when the battle horn started to blow and the PA announced ‘abandon ship.’ There were no lights, only the blue battle lanterns. The first class said ‘leave him, he’s going to die anyway.’ I began swearing a blue streak at him, making all kinds of threats. I must have passed out about that time.”
The next 26 hours must have been hell for Weise and the one other seaman with him in the sick bay, an 18-year-old named Norman Pichette. But Weise apparently convinced Pichette, who was suffering from a shrapnel wound to his stomach, to wrap a sheet around his injury and make his way back to the flight deck to fire a machine gun in an effort to get the attention of the remaining U.S. forces in the area.
That plan worked – the last two men on the Yorktown were saved not much later by a rescue party, although Pichette later died of his wounds. Despite efforts to save the aircraft carrier, it wasn’t long before a Japanese torpedo sealed the ship’s fate, sinking it into the sea on June 6, 1942.
Weise had been the last man aboard during the battle who was taken off in the aftermath.
Incredibly, George Weise declined a medical discharge following the incident and continued on active duty with the Navy until his honorable discharge in 1946.
His life after the war was normal – he married his sweetheart Jean and worked for the next few years in construction and with the U.S. Post Office during the winter months before taking a job with Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Republic Aviation in 1950, where he eventually rose to the level of liaison officer for the general foreman.
Weise’s daughters have plenty of keepsakes from this time as well, including a union ledger full of strike stamps and more. It was during this time that the three daughters were born, and their memories of their father are of his work, his love for nature and animals (they once referred to him as “deer man” after he left boxes worth of doughnuts outside for the deer around his home in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania).
They also admired his determination to lead a normal life despite his injuries – one of his passions was golf, which eventually played a large role in his desire to retire to the Carolina Trace community in the 1990s – as he had trained the working side of his body to do everything the non-working side had once done. He was even able in recent years to take part in a “Flight of Honor” which helped him travel to Washington, D.C. in order to see the World War II Memorial there.
But mostly, he enjoyed a quiet – but active – retirement.
“He golfed a lot when we moved down here,” Fancher said. “He golfed with a group of people and he never let the injuries slow him down. He drove until three years ago.”
Weise’s wife Jean passed away in 2013.
“My father swore he would stay alive for as long as she needed him,” Fancher said. “Which he did.”
After George Weise’s death last month, the family held a celebration of life at the Carolina Trace Country Club, complete with military honors. But his journey isn’t over, and his final resting place will be more in line with his surroundings over those terrifying days in 1942.
“He has been cremated, and we’ve got his remains in a biodegradable urn,” Fancher said. “He’s gone to Fort Bragg, and will eventually be sent to Norfolk, where he’ll go out on a ship and eventually be buried at sea.”
In Weise’s obituary from the Smith Funeral Home in Broadway, just a single line references his heroic story – “he was the last survivor off of the USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway” – but his daughters say he probably would have liked it that way.
“The older he got, the more open he got,” Fancher said. “But he still didn’t talk about it much. I don’t think the people who knew him even knew what he’d been through.”