On May 8, 1942, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) was badly damaged after helping to destroy the Japanese carrier Shoho at the Battle of the Coral Sea. With a gaping hole in her flight deck and her superheater boilers out of commission, Yorktown was expected to be out of action for months—but after just 72 hours of repairs, she was able to participate in the Battle of Midway, where it helped sink two IJN carriers while protecting the other American carriers from aerial counterattack.
In honor of Memorial Day, we’ll take a brief look at the remarkable circumstances around this storied carrier and the exceptional contributions of the heroes who made it happen.
The Yorktown: From Humble Beginnings to the Battle of the Coral Sea
Launched in 1936, Yorktown was the lead ship of the new Yorktown-class of carriers, designed to incorporate all the experience and lessons learned from the previous four carriers. She carried 90 aircraft—roughly equivalent to the larger Japanese carriers it would fight against at Midway—and a wartime complement of around 3,000 men.
Following training in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Yorktown conducted her shakedown cruise—or performance test—in the Caribbean. In 1939, she participated in Fleet Problem XX, the Navy’s 20th annual large-scale naval exercises, setting a new benchmark for carrier performance. After a brief period operating along the west coast, Yorktown set out for the Atlantic on April 20, 1941, to protect American interests from a new threat: the U-Boat. Following her neutrality patrols, she put into port at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia on December 2, 1941.
Little did her captain and crew know that in just five days’ time, Imperial Japan would attack Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of Americans and sending the US Navy’s surface fleet of destroyers, battleships and cruisers.
This left Yorktown and the six other carriers—Enterprise, Hornet, Lexington, Wasp, Ranger and Saratoga, none of which were at Pearl Harbor—as the backbone of the US Navy.
With America now at war, Yorktown was recalled to the Pacific and, on December 30, made flagship of Rear Admiral Fletcher’s newly-formed Task Force 17. It wouldn’t be long before she saw her first major action.
Working with superior intelligence, Admiral Chester Nimitz—now Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet—knew that the Japanese Navy intended to attack Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in the first week of May 1942 in an attempt to strengthen their defensive position in the South Pacific. He issued orders that sent four carriers towards the port to finally put an end to a series of USN defeats. Only Yorktown and USS Lexington (CV-2) would make it there in time.
The American fleet made contact with the numerically-superior IJN fleet—which consisted of fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku (both of which took part in the attack on Pearl Harbor), light carrier Shoho, and a number of support craft—and the two forces traded blows over the course of four days in what would come to be called the Battle of the Coral Sea. This was the first battle in history where two carriers battled toe-to-toe. Losses were heavy.
When the dust settled, both American carriers and all three Japanese carriers had sustained heavy damage or were depleted of aircraft. Lexington and Shoho were scuttled. Shokaku sustained heavy damage to the flight deck (courtesy of Yorktown’s dive bombers) and limped to safety. Zuikaku, her air arm slaughtered, did the same.
Damage to Yorktown was significant. Captain Elliott Buckmaster, skilled as he was in maneuvering, could do nothing when a Japanese “Val” dive bomber scored a direct hit. The 550-pound bomb penetrated the deck and exploded below, killing or seriously injuring 66 men and damaging her superheater boilers. The damage looked to be so severe that the Japanese thought she had been sunk. They would soon be proven terribly wrong.
Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, Yorktown was ordered back to Pearl Harbor ASAP for repairs. Some experts estimated that she would need at least three months of repairs. Admiral Nimitz, understanding the grave urgency of a new threat to a tiny atoll called Midway, gave shipyard workers just three days to get Yorktown back into fighting shape.
One of my favorite accounts of the shipwrights’ struggle comes from Reddit user Limonhed in this thread:
“My late father-in-law was one of the civilian shipwrights flown out to Yorktown after it was damaged at the Coral Sea. He said they worked 24/7 doing what they could, and fell asleep on the deck where they worked. The sailors had orders not to bother a sleeping shipwright unless it was an emergency. They ate sandwiches brought by the sailors while they continued to work. Cutting torch in one hand and sandwich in the other. Sometimes a sailor would stop by and stick a lit cigarette in his mouth while he continued to work. Much of the preparation work for the repairs were finished when they arrived at Pearl. They continued working 24/7 the entire time they were at Pearl and were still on the ship when it sailed. They were flown off only when the fleet got close enough to worry about Japanese attacks. Their efforts cut a week off the repairs and allowed Yorktown to get back in time for the next battle.”
Without the hard work and dedication shown by the yard workers, Yorktown would never have made it to Midway. Her unexpected presence confused the IJN and helped the United States Navy deliver a crushing defeat—and serious payback—to the Japanese fleet.
Yorktown at the Battle of Midway
Armed with knowledge of when and with what ships the enemy planned to ambush Midway (and the two aircraft carriers that constituted the IJN’s real targets), Adm. Nimitz moved the entire Pacific fleet to Midway to set an ambush of his own.
The Yorktown was a lynchpin in this regard. The already-outnumbered US Navy could not make up the difference in operational aircraft—not to mention that the Yorktown was the only carrier with experience launching a full strike.
Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown would face off against Soryu, Hiryu, Akagi and Kaga in a battle that turned the tide of war in the Pacific.
Japan began its initial attack on Midway Island at 4:30am on June 4, intent on destroying the land-based aircraft. It was repulsed thanks to stiff resistance from American forces. Neither navy had located the other until 5:34am, when a PBY seaplane from Midway Island finally spotted the Japanese fleet. Admiral Fletcher ordered the launch of aircraft from Enterprise and Hornet starting at 7:00am.
The first wave was a disaster from the get-go. While Japan was able to launch 108 aircraft in just seven minutes, it took Enterprise and Hornet over an hour to launch 117 aircraft. It’s odd to think of the USA as underdogs in any capacity, let alone war, but that’s exactly the case.
And Japan’s advantage reached far beyond coordination and training. The American Navy was still using the TPD Devastator torpedo bomber, a woefully outmoded aircraft that was totally outclassed by Japan’s Zero fighters. Of the 41 Devastators that sortied during Midway, not a single one produced a torpedo hit, and only six returned. And even if one of the Devastators HAD registered a hit, there’s a good chance that the poorly-manufactured Mark 13 Torpedoes would not have detonated.
Yorktown’s pilots, who had been held back from the initial launch in case other Japanese carriers were found, were given a harrowing briefing: “If only three out of your 12-plane squadron survive the run-in to deliver your torpedoes, your mission will have been a success.” Yorktown’s aircraft launched at 9:08am.
But just when the future of the US Pacific fleet began to look grim, the battle turned on a dime.
It just so happened that three squadrons of Douglas SBD Scout Bombers (a fine aircraft, not to be confused with the TBD Devastator) were approaching the Japanese fleet. Two of the three were short on fuel, and none of them knew exactly where the fleet was.
It was then that Enterprise Air Group Commander C. Wade McClusky, dangerously low on fuel, made one of the most fortuitous decisions in the war. Instead of turning back, he kept looking for the enemy carriers, and he just so happened to locate a lone Japanese destroyer traveling at flank speed. Acting on a hunch, he followed it…all the way to the Japanese carriers, now short on defense.
The three squadrons descended on the carriers like a swarm of locusts. Yorktown’s VB-3, commanded by Max Leslie, went for Soryu, battering it with three direct hits.
Enterprise’s squadrons split into two and took on Akagi and Kaga, scoring multiple direct hits.
Within six minutes, Soryu and Kaga were totally engulfed stem to stern. Although Akagi was hit by just one bomb, it exploded in the hangar, causing massive devastation and leaving it dead in the water. Just like that, a good portion of Imperial Japan’s mighty Pacific fleet was reduced to burning husks, leaving just the Hiryu.
But it wasn’t all good news. Japanese bombers from Hiryu followed the retreating American aircraft and attacked the first carrier they found…which just so happened to be Yorktown. Japanese pilots managed to score three hits, blowing a hole in the deck and snuffing out her boilers. But American damage control and ship survivability were far beyond that of the IJN, and within just one hour, she was patched up and ready to go again.
The second wave of Hiryu torpedo bombers arrived another hour later. The repair efforts were so effective that the Japanese pilots assumed Yorktown must be a different, undamaged carrier. Again, they battered her, this time with two torpedoes. Yorktown lost all power and began to list…but she still didn’t sink.
Captain Buckmaster, having heard the reports about how quickly the Japanese carriers sank, gave the order to abandon ship. The wounded were offloaded first, followed by the able-bodied sailors, all in good order. Captain Buckmaster even walked the ship one final time to make sure nobody remained onboard, and when he found none, lowered himself into the water by means of a knotted line over the stern.
But this was a day of retribution, and later in the afternoon, a scout aircraft from Yorktown found the Hiryu. 24 dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown descended on the Japanese carrier, peppering it with four bombs. She went up in flames just like the other Japanese carriers had earlier in the day. Lieutenant Commander Dick Best, who has the unique distinction of landing bombs on two different carriers, recalls the feeling:
“I felt myself to be lord of creation of the time. The feeling of success and the fulfillment of revenge was so sweet that I’ve never felt anything as intensely as that in all my life.”
All four of Japan’s carriers were now at the bottom of the Pacific. The US Navy delivered a decisive blow, and Japan was never able to replace its most-skilled pilots and best aircraft fast enough. The war was far from over, but the tide had turned.
Yorktown finally succumbs
Believe it or not, after six major detonations—one at Coral Sea and five at Midway—Yorktown was still afloat, and the salvage effort was going well…until a Japanese sub snuck past the American destroyer line and fired a torpedo that hit the USS Hamann, a destroyer acting as tow/escort ship. The Hamann essentially broke in half and sank quickly, killing the 81 men aboard and others from Yorktown who has been blown overboard. Understandably, the other tow ship cut the cable to Yorktown, and the battered carrier finally fell beneath the waves the following morning.
“That’s alright, fellas,” Captain Buckmaster told his men. “We’ll get another ship and come out again.”
By the time the first shots were fired at Midway, Yorktown was already nearly half a year overdue for a major refit. The emergency repairs performed at Pearl Harbor were intended to keep her seaworthy for two or three weeks. She had been nearly blown to bits over the course of two major battles. And still, she gave more: her last great contribution was soaking up a Japanese counterattack that could easily have been aimed at one of the healthy carriers.
The truth is, the Japanese had to sink her three times before it finally “took.”
Here’s to the Heroes Who Made Yorktown Great
Despite her toughness, resilience, and valiant contribution to the war In the Pacific, Yorktown was still just a ship. Yorktown only achieved greatness because of the heroes who made her great.
On this Memorial Day, we honor them all. First and foremost, to the 207 Yorktown crewmembers who died in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway. And to her crew, who put our fires, patched her up, and carried on in the face of constant duress. And to the Devastator torpedo bomber pilots who knew they wouldn’t make it back. To the Dauntless scout bomber pilots who directly contributed to the sinking of three Japanese aircraft carriers. To the shipyard workers at Pearl Harbor, who did the impossible. And, of course, to the savvy leadership of Capt. Buckmaster, Admiral Spruance, Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Nimitz..
Today, we honor those brave men, as we honor so many others for their sacrifices in serving our great nation. I’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to all those who serve and have served.
Just one more note…I’ve never served, and as hard as I have tried to get my terminology correct and not be disrespectful, I admit that I may have made a misstep. Please feel free to correct me. – Thanks
- It’s unfortunate that by focusing on Yorktown, the contributions of Enterprise and Hornet, and of the ground forces on Midway, are implicitly minimized. This is not the case. The USS Hornet launched the Doolittle Raid and participated in both Guadalcanal and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, USS Enterprise ended the war as the Navy’s most decorated ship, and the Marines stationed on Midway Island put up a hell of a fight and never flinched.
- You can’t talk about the Navy’s intelligence operations without mentioning Joseph Rochefort. Rochefort not only helped to break Japanese code JN25, but was the only cryptanalyst to correctly surmise that “AF” was Japan’s code for Midway (others thought it was code for the Aleutian Islands or even the West Coast). In order to convince his superiors, he devised a plan: the garrison commander on Midway would radio an emergency request for water in “plain language.” Japan took the bait, transmitting a message that “AF” was out of water.
- I tried my best to avoid the historical controversy around what happened when the three American bomber squadrons converged over the Japanese carriers. Much of our prior understanding of that event came from the writings of Japanese pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, who characterized the timing as something of a miracle. Parshall and Tully’s “Shattered Sword,” along with official Japanese publication of the war history, refuted many of Fuchida’s claims.“Shattered Sword” is excellent and I would recommend it to everyone interested in the subject.
- If that Japanese submarine hadn’t snuck through the defensive perimeter and attacked the USS Hamann, there’s a very good chance Yorktown would’ve made it back to Pearl Harbor. Very generally speaking, American design favored survivability, while Japanese design favored speed and hitting power. For a navy that couldn’t replace pilots and materiel fast enough, this was a fatal decision.
- Interestingly, of the 17 ships lost or damaged in the Attack On Pearl Harbor, 14 were repaired and returned to service. Additionally, Japan made a huge mistake by not targeting Pearl Harbor’s fuel storage and dry dock facilities.
- As Lexington slowly sank after Coral Sea, her crew abandoned ship—but not before breaking into the freezer and eating all the ice cream. Sailors dipper their helmets into the ice cream and licked them clean before leaving.