This is part one of a three part series about the USS Yorktown Class Aircraft Carriers. Part one serves as an introduction as well as the story of the lead ship of the Class, the USS Yorktown CV-5.
Seldom in the annals of war is recorded that three ships changed the course of a war and altered history. Winston Churchill once said about Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” however I would place the epic war waged by the three carriers of the Yorktown class against the Combined Fleet and First Carrier Strike Group, the Kido Butai of the Imperial Japanese Navy between December 1941 and November 1942 alongside the epic fight of the Royal Air Force against Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
The Carriers of the Yorktown Class hold a spot in United States Naval History nearly unequaled by any other class of ships, especially a class that numbered only three ships. Designed and built in the mid 1930s they were the final class of pre-war carriers commissioned by the navy. The ships were built incorporating the lessons learned with Langley, Lexington, Saratoga and Ranger and had features that would become standard in the design of US Aircraft Carriers. As such they were the template for future classes of ships beginning with the Essex Class until the advent of the super carriers of the Forrestal Class.
The ships displaced 19.800 tons with a 25,000 full load displacement. Capable of 32.5 knots they were the Navy’s first truly successful class of carriers built from the keel up. The ships could embark over aircraft and could steam long distances without refueling. Protection was good for their era and the ships proved to be extraordinarily tough when tested in actual combat. In speed and air group capacity the only carriers of their era to equal them were the Japanese Hiryu and Soryu and the larger Shokaku and Zuikaku. British carriers of the period were about the same size but were slower and carried a smaller and far less capable air group though their protection which included armored flight decks was superior to both the American and Japanese ships.
The lead ship, the Yorktown CV-5 was laid down in 1934 and commissioned on 30 September 1937. She served in the Atlantic conducting carrier qualifications and operating with her sister ship USS Enterprise CV-6 to develop the tactics and operational procedures that would be used by US carrier forces until she joined the Pacific Fleet in late 1939. Upon joining the Pacific Fleet Yorktown took part in various major fleet exercises and due to the deteriorating situation in the Atlantic was transferred back to the Atlantic Fleet along with other significant Pacific Fleet units screening convoys against U-Boat attacks, Yorktown was a Norfolk when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and 9 days later she departed for the Pacific where she would join Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher’s Task Force 17 (TF-17) at San Diego on December 30th 1941. Her first duty was escorting a convoy of Marine reinforcements to Samoa followed by the first American offensive action of the war, a raid on the Gilbert Islands including Makin Island in late January and against eastern New Guinea in March. On May 4th the Yorktown’s air group attacked Japanese installations on Tulagi and Gavutu sinking the Japanese destroyer Kikuzuki.
The actions in the Solomons were connected to the Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby. The Japanese forces were led by the Shokau and Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho. The Americans parried the Japanese thrust with Task Group 11 centered on the Lexington and Fletcher’s Task Force 17 built around the Yorktown.
The clash of forces on the 7th and 8th of May is known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. This was the first Naval Battle fought by forces that did not come within visual distance of each other which was fought by carrier based aircraft against the ships and aircraft of the opposing forces. On the 7th Japanese aircraft busied themselves attacking the oiler USS Neosho and destroyer USS Sims, sinking Sims and damaging Neosho badly that her shattered hulk would be sunk by US destroyers on the 11th. As the Japanese aircraft worked over the unfortunate Sims and Neosho aircraft from the Yorktown and Lexington attacked and sank the Shoho. On the 8th the main event began. Aircraft from Yorktown scored two bomb hits on Shokaku holing her flight deck, starting fires and knocking her out of the fight. The Japanese countered as their aircraft discovered the US ships scoring two torpedo and three bomb hits on Lexington which would result in her loss when fumes were ignited by a generator causing catastrophic explosions which forced her abandonment.
Meanwhile Yorktown was under attack by Japanese aircraft. Expertly maneuvered by her Captain Elliott Buckmaster, she was able to avoid the deadly torpedoes but suffered a bomb hit that penetrated the flight deck exploding below decks killing 66 sailors and causing heavy damage.
The battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese who sank the Lexington, however it was a strategic victory for the Americans as the Japanese move on Port Moresby was blunted and the lifeline to Australia preserved. Additioanllyneither the damaged Shokaku nor the Zuikaku whose air group suffered heavy losses would be available for the attack on Midway scheduled for June.
The damage to Yorktown was severe and it was estimated by naval engineers that repairs to her would take three months. Due to the success of US Navy code breakers the Navy had deciphered the Japanese intention to attack Midway. Critically short of ships the Navy determined that Yorktown would have to be available for the fight. Yorktown and her escorts arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 27th and in less than 72 hours she received repairs that enabled her to speed to Midway. It was an amazing performance by the shipyard workers at Pearl Harbor who worked around the clock to put Yorktown back in fighting shape. Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor on the 30th with her escorts and her air group augmented by squadrons from the Saratoga which was unavailable after being torpedoed in January and was still enoute to Hawaii following repairs and modernization on the West Coast.
With her repairs even lacking a fresh coat of paint and her cobbled together air group joined Yorktown led Task Force 17 to the waters east of Midway where they linked up with Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Task Force 16 built around Yorktown’s sisters the Enterprise and Hornet. Yorktown and her escorts took station ten miles to the north of Task Force 16 as they waited for the appearance of the Japanese Fleet. They would not have long to wait on June 3rd the invasion force was spotted by search planes operating out of Midway.
On June 4th the Japanese Kido Butai, the crack Carrier strike group commanded by Admiral Nagumo composed of the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers numerous escorting destroyers led Admiral Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet into battle. Nagumo’s aircraft hit Midway as land based aircraft from Midway manned by inexperienced flight crews made uncoordinated piecemeal attacks against the veteran Japanese who decimated the attackers. Initially the American ships avoided detection as a scout plane from the cruiser Tone was late in departing for its search sector and when the scout first spotted the Yorktown group did not report the presence of a carrier providing Nagumo with a false sense of security. The American carrier aircraft then attacked. The slow, underpowered, under-armed and obsolete TBD-1 Devastator torpedo planes attacked first. Of 41 attacking aircraft only 6 returned to Enterprise and Yorktown, all 15 aircraft from Hornet’s Torpedo 8 were lost.
While the Japanese scrambled to recover, rearm and launch their aircraft to attack the American Task Force and the Zeroes of the Japanese Combat Air Patrol were drawn down to the deck pursuing the remaining Devastators the SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown surprised the Japanese carriers. With full fueled and armed aircraft preparing for launch and bombs unloaded from the Kate Torpedo planes still laying about the deck waiting to be stowed the American dive bombers attacked. Bombing 6 and Scouting 6 from Enterprise blasted Akagi and Kaga while Yorktown’s Bombing 3 hit Soryu causing massive damage and fires that would sink all three leaving on Hiryu to continue the fight. Hiryu’s dive bombers found Yorktown and suffered heavy losses to the F4F Wildcats of Yorktown’s CAP yet three Val’s from Hiryu scored hits which started fires and disabled Yorktown, causing her to lose power and go dead in the water. Yorktown’s damage control teams miraculously got the fires under control, patched her damaged flight deck while her engineers restored power and Yorktown was back in action steaming at a reduced speed of 20 knots but able to conduct air operations again.
Hiryu’s second strike composed of Kate Torpedo Bombers discovered Yorktown, and thinking she was another carrier since she appeared undamaged attacked her. Yorktown’s reduced CAP was unable to stop the Kates and the Japanese scored 2 torpedo hits causing another loss of power and a severe list. Thinking that she might capsize the captain ordered that she be abandoned. As this was occurring a mixed attack group from the Enterprise and now “homeless” Yorktown aircraft attacked Hiryu causing mortal damage to that brave ship.
With water lapping at her hangar deck it appeared that Yorktown would soon sink the ship was abandoned and left adrift. However she floated through the night and the next morning a repair crew went aboard to try and save her. The destroyer USS Hammann came alongside to provide pumps and power for the salvage operations while 5 other destroyers provided an anti-submarine screen. It looked like the repair crews were gaining the upper hand when the Japanese submarine I-158 reached a firing position undetected and fired 4 torpedoes one of which stuck Hammann causing her to break in half, jack-knife and sink rapidly while 2 more hit Yorktown causing mortal damage. Once again her crew evacuated the proud ship and Captain Buckmaster planned another attempt for the 7th, however one the morning of the 7th the Yorktown rolled over and sank ringed by her escorts.
Yorktown was stricken from the Navy list on October 2nd 1942 and her name given to the second ship of the Essex class. That Yorktown would provide gallant service in war and peace and now is a museum in Charleston South Carolina.
The second installment of this series will be about the USS Hornet, CV-8 and appear later this week.
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