He earned a Naval Aviator's Wings of Gold, and on January 21, 1941 reported aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) to squadron Bombing FIVE (VB-5) flying the Douglas SBD Dauntless. The nickname of Powers' dive bomber may have been picked unbeknownst with him in mind. During the Battle of the Coral Sea from May 4-8, 1942, "dauntless" is just one of the superlatives that describe his flying, courage, and tenacity. His acts saw him posthumously awarded our Nation's highest honor.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (M-S):
*POWERS, JOHN JAMES
Rank and organization: Lieutenant, U.S. Navy. Born: 13 July 1912, New York City, N.Y. Accredited to: New York. Other Navy award: Air Medal with 1 gold star. Citation: For distinguished and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, while pilot of an airplane of Bombing Squadron 5, Lt. Powers participated, with his squadron, in 5 engagements with Japanese forces in the Coral Sea area and adjacent waters during the period 4 to 8 May 1942. Three attacks were made on enemy objectives at or near Tulagi on 4 May. In these attacks he scored a direct hit which instantly demolished a large enemy gunboat or destroyer and is credited with 2 close misses, 1 of which severely damaged a large aircraft tender, the other damaging a 20,000-ton transport. He fearlessly strafed a gunboat, firing all his ammunition into it amid intense antiaircraft fire. This gunboat was then observed to be leaving a heavy oil slick in its wake and later was seen beached on a nearby island. On 7 May, an attack was launched against an enemy airplane carrier and other units of the enemy's invasion force. He fearlessly led his attack section of 3 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers, to attack the carrier. On this occasion he dived in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, to an altitude well below the safety altitude, at the risk of his life and almost certain damage to his own plane, in order that he might positively obtain a hit in a vital part of the ship, which would insure her complete destruction. This bomb hit was noted by many pilots and observers to cause a tremendous explosion engulfing the ship in a mass of flame, smoke, and debris. The ship sank soon after. That evening, in his capacity as Squadron Gunnery Officer, Lt. Powers gave a lecture to the squadron on point-of-aim and diving technique. During this discourse he advocated low release point in order to insure greater accuracy; yet he stressed the danger not only from enemy fire and the resultant low pull-out, but from own bomb blast and bomb fragments. Thus his low-dive bombing attacks were deliberate and premeditated, since he well knew and realized the dangers of such tactics, but went far beyond the call of duty in order to further the cause which he knew to be right. The next morning, 8 May, as the pilots of the attack group left the ready room to man planes, his indomitable spirit and leadership were well expressed in his own words, "Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.'' He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit. He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, and amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel.
The aircraft carrier that Powers' bomb was credited with the final destruction of was Shōhō. The carrier he was bombing right down almost onto its flight deck was Shōkaku. The destruction of these two ships had a direct effect on the outcome of the next major naval battle in the Pacific - the Battle of Midway - as neither ship was available to the enemy.
Lieutenant Powers' body was never recovered. His name and legacy was carried into combat later in the war by the USS John J. Powers (DE-528), an Evarts-class destroyer escort, which served on convoy duty in the North Atlantic beginning in February 1944. The John J. Powers was decommissioned on October 16, 1945 and scrapped in 1946. No other naval vessel has carried his name to date.
A second member of the USNA Class of 1935, Milton E. Ricketts, also received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Battle of the Coral Sea.
The most fitting close to this post is to repeat Powers' quote contained in his Medal citation:
Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.They were counting on our brave Navy fliers, and John James Powers more than did his duty to our Nation and all those who love liberty.