Her very name is brimming with historical significance for the American people. She was sunk by the Japanese during World War II, 75 years ago this June, in the otherwise miraculous U.S. victory in the Battle of Midway. She had been named in honor of a place synonymous with America’s war for independence. Yorktown, Virginia was the site, in late 1781, of the historic defeat of the British that had effectively ended the Revolutionary War. The American triumph at Yorktown had culminated six long, hard years of war and suffering, and had resulted in the independence of the American people. A ship named YORKTOWN symbolized both America’s fighting spirit and her overarching dream of peace and freedom.
Built at Newport News, Virginia, only minutes away from the historic site for which she was named, the USS YORKTOWN (CV-5) was commissioned into active naval service in late 1937. She was the first of three U.S. carriers in the appropriately named YORKTOWN class. Along with her sister ships, the USS ENTERPRISE and USS HORNET, they would all become World War II legends.
The newly commissioned YORKTOWN, with a crew of just over 2200 sailors, patrolled both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from 1938 until early in 1941. During that time she participated in two major training exercises, both of which demonstrated the growing importance of the aircraft carrier in naval warfare and gave valuable insight into what would be required in the upcoming Pacific fighting. From the very beginning, she would be a major contributor to our national security.
In April of 1941, eight months before America’s entry into World War II, the YORKTOWN was assigned convoy duty in the Atlantic. In this role she would help maintain U.S. neutrality, while escorting supply ships headed to England. Such duty involved recurrent patrols through waters teeming with prowling German submarines, the infamous U-boats. Once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and America entered the war, YORKTOWN was quickly dispatched to the Pacific, to join in the fighting there. Beginning in January of 1942, she took part in delivering Marine reinforcements to American Samoa and in making aerial raids on Japanese installations in the Gilbert Islands and New Guinea.
By late April 1942, American code-breakers had discovered that the Japanese were apparently planning a major thrust southward toward the critical seaport of Port Moresby in New Guinea. Such a move would increase the threat to Australia, while at the same time impeding American access to her ally “down under.” A major showdown was looming during the first week of May 1942, in what would become known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. The American-Australian naval force sent out to oppose the Japanese invasion fleet would rally around two U.S. aircraft carriers, the older USS LEXINGTON and the USS YORKTOWN.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval engagement in history in which opposing ships never saw each other, but unleashed ferocious attacks on one another by means of carrier-based aircraft. Both sides suffered significant losses of men, ships, and aircraft, with the Allies faring worse than the Japanese. The LEXINGTON was sunk and the YORKTOWN badly damaged. The Japanese mistakenly believed that they had also sunk YORKTOWN. In the end, however, the U.S., along with her Australian allies, had achieved their first strategic victory of the Pacific war. The Japanese had, for the moment, given up their plans to invade and occupy Port Moresby.
American success in the Coral Sea had been achieved at considerable cost. With LEXINGTON now resting on the bottom of the ocean and YORKTOWN crippled and unable to fight, the U.S. now had only two available aircraft carriers in the entire Pacific. Japanese plans for the upcoming Battle of Midway, again gleaned by the code-breakers, focused on drawing out the American Pacific fleet into a mega-battle and destroying it, once and for all. With only two available carriers to press the fight against Japan at Midway, the probability of the U.S. Navy being dealt a death blow there seemed very, very high. The currently incapacitated YORKTOWN was badly needed for this anticipated upcoming battle, one which would prove to be a decisive turning point in the Japanese-American conflict in the Pacific.
Licking her multiple wounds received on May 8 in the Coral Sea affair, YORKTOWN would limp back into Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942. With considerable damage to her propulsion plant and buckled steel plates causing the ship to take on water, some experts talked of the need for months of repairs to get YORKTOWN ready to fight again. The most conservative estimates put the time required for overhaul at two weeks. YORKTOWN was needed in a week’s time for the foreboding showdown at Midway, some 1300 miles away. It would take nothing short of a miracle to get her there.
After personally participating in her initial inspection, legendary Admiral Chester Nimitz, overall commander of America’s Pacific fleet, ordered the repairs be made in 48 hours. Entering dry dock upon arrival at Pearl, YORKTOWN was immediately “attacked” by an army of over 1400 repair workers. With the sparks of welding torches seemingly everywhere, they labored feverishly around the clock. Stopping only for brief coffee and sandwich breaks, they mended YORKTOWN as best they could. Less than 48 hours later, she floated out of dry dock with scores of repair workers still onboard. More patched up than permanently repaired, she sailed for Midway early on the morning of May 31. Overhaul work continued as she steamed for her rendezvous point with the American naval force, already quietly lying in wait for the Japanese. The resurrection of YORKTOWN had occurred just in time for her to participate in the even greater miracle of the Battle of Midway.
On June 4, 1942, the Pacific war experienced a seismic shift, all during the course of a few hours, at the epic naval battle on and around Midway atoll. A significantly superior Japanese force was soundly defeated by the Americans in an incredible victory. Japanese losses had been staggering, all four fleet aircraft carriers sunk, some 300 aircraft destroyed, and over 3000 men killed. The entire tide of the war had now changed.
In the midst of America’s astounding success at Midway, there had been bad news. It was YORKTOWN. Her air crews had distinguished themselves, along with those from ENTERPRISE and HORNET, in the destruction of the Japanese carriers. However, just before the last surviving enemy carrier, HIRYU, was sunk by aircraft from YORKTOWN and ENTERPRISE, the HIRYU managed to locate YORKTOWN. The first wave of dive bombers from HIRYU scored three direct and devastating bomb hits on YORKTOWN. Like a boxer staggering from a near knockout punch, she initially went dead in the water. Then, after heroic damage control efforts by her crew, she prepared to get underway again and resume the fight. It was then that she was hit by a second wave, this time Japanese torpedo bombers. Two of their torpedoes found their marks, and YORKTOWN seemed to have been dealt a mortal blow. She lost all power, went dead in the water, started to flood, and began to list to port (lean to her left side). Reluctantly, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, her Commanding Officer, gave the order to abandon ship. Her proud and well-trained crew departed the ship in an exemplary manner. First lowering the wounded into life rafts and boats, they all made their way to nearby escorting destroyers and cruisers. Buckmaster, following historic naval tradition, was the last person to leave the ship. By this time, the much-loved home and fighting platform for over 2000 American sailors, the USS YORKTOWN, was abandoned and listing even further to port.
Amazingly, YORKTOWN refused to sink throughout the night of June 4. The next day, from the heavy cruiser USS ASTORIA, Captain Buckmaster made plans for a 170 man crew of officers and enlisted men to return to YORKTOWN and attempt to save her. The salvage party boarded the crippled carrier on the morning of June 6 and began to make slow but steady progress. Meanwhile, a group of five destroyers established an antisubmarine perimeter around the disabled ship. Hopes were running high in mid-afternoon when lookouts spotted a group of torpedoes bearing down on YORKTOWN from her starboard (right) side. A Japanese submarine had managed to penetrate the destroyer shield and launch the deadly, swimming missiles. One torpedo hit the American destroyer HAMMANN as she was tied up alongside YORKTOWN, assisting the salvage crew. She sank almost immediately. Two other torpedoes struck the starboard side of YORKTOWN’s hull. The heroic giant now seemed doomed. After a frantic and futile search for the elusive submarine, the patrolling destroyers commenced rescue operations for the survivors of the HAMMANN and the YORKTOWN salvage crew. Amidst the eerie sounds of metal plates breaking and sliding equipment, the great flat top was abandoned for the second time. It was just too dangerous to stay onboard.
All through the night of June 6, the mighty warrior fought for her life. By 5:30 a.m. on the morning of June 7, observers on the escort ships noticed that her list to port was rapidly increasing. At 7:01 a.m., the hard-fighting YORKTOWN, hero of the pivotal Coral Sea and Midway clashes, began to breathe her last. She turned completely over onto her port side, then rolled upside-down, and finally slipped beneath the ocean surface, stern first. Her battle flags were still flying. Nearby, in silent reverence, the accompanying destroyers and cruisers had lowered their flags to half-mast. Their crews, with caps removed, came to attention, many with tear-filled eyes. The always battling YORKTOWN would come to rest, three miles below the waves, on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. She had served her crew and her country well.
Ten months later, in April of 1943, America would commission a new aircraft carrier named YORKTOWN (CV-10). This addition to the growing U.S. fleet would remind Americans of her predecessor, which had made such a vital contribution to America’s critical struggle with Japan. CV-10 would distinguish herself during the remaining two and a half years of fighting in the Pacific, while honoring the memory of the hero of Coral Sea and Midway. My father’s first cousin, George Hudgens of Calhoun, would serve during the final years of the war on the latter YORKTOWN. She is on display today at Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina. Why not take your kids or grandkids on a trip there, and learn some things about our heritage and about the cost of freedom?
In 1998, Robert Ballard, famed discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic, would locate and photograph the wreck of YORKTOWN off Midway. As one might expect, the fighting lady was still in excellent shape, sitting upright on the ocean floor.
Little did we realize it at the time, but the loss of YORKTOWN during a sweeping U.S. victory at Midway would be a cautionary warning that three long years of hard fighting against a fanatical, suicidal foe still remained before us. Today she serves as a hidden, silent, and mostly forgotten memorial to the fighting spirit of a peace-loving people. Remember the USS YORKTOWN (CV-5) and the 141 Americans who gave their life while serving on her in the Battle of Midway….75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” -Ronald Reagan.