Daily Archives: April 20, 2020

The Ships that Held the Line: The Yorktown Class Carriers, Part One, the Yorktown

USS Yorktown CV-5

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been continuing to read and pay attention to the current developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.  Though I have already written a fair amount about it, I still have much to lean. I am still studying models on the spread of it, current numbers of total infections, new infections, and deaths in this country and around the world, as well as reading about the 1918-1919 Great Influenza. Finally I am trying to take in the current political and social disruption, the virus is causing, as well as the ever increasing threats of revolt and harm being mounted against the politicians and scientists who are actually following sound policies to slow the spread of the virus so it does not overwhelm our hospital system until successful treatments and a vaccine can be found. Sadly, much of this is coming in response to words and Tweets of President Trump, and appears to be a coordinated, and not spontaneous protest against the social distancing, isolation, and other restrictive measures to slow the spread of the disease. This perplexes me as a civil rights advocate, historian, defender of the First Amendment, as well as a veteran who has worked as a Medical Service Corps Officer and Critical Care Chaplain in two previous pandemics. 

As you can imagine that takes time to do, and I won’t shoot from the hip when I start writing new articles on the virus and its spread, the response, the casualties, and the political and social battle being waged by extremists using it as an excuse to promote their ideology. But I digress, I can write about that later. So tonight I go back to a less controversial subject, about which I know much, and have written about before. 

This article 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. I wish you the best tonight, as well as tomorrow. Please be safe.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Seldom in the annals of war is it recorded that three ships changed the course of a war and altered history as we know it. After December 7th 1941, the three ships of the Yorktown Class Aircraft Carriers, the USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise , and USS Hornet served as the shield against the seemingly unstoppable Japanese string of victories, and then served as the spearhead of the American counteroffensive that began far earlier that the Japanese imagined in the spring and summer of 1942.

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, in addition to that remarkable event, I would place the epic war waged by the three carriers of the Yorktown class against the Japanese 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.

USS Yorktown and Enterprise under Construction, Newport News Virginia, at the dock above either the USS Boise or St.Louis 

The Carriers of the Yorktown Class hold a spot in United States Naval History nearly unequaled by any other class of ships, especially since they were 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 U.S. Navy

Unlike their predecessors they were no longer experimental ships. They were built incorporating the lessons learned through operational experience with the USS Langley, USS Lexington, USS Saratoga and USS Ranger. The Class had features that would become standard in the design of all future 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. 

Yorktown Refueling Underway

The ships displaced 19.800 tons with a 25,000 full load displacement. They were capable of steaming at 32.5 knots, and they were the Navy’s first truly successful class of carriers built from the keel up.  The ships could embark over 80 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, had a shorter range of operations, and carried a smaller and far less capable air group. However, their protection which included armored flight decks and hull armor that was superior to both the American and Japanese ships. That would prove particularly valuable in their survival, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea against massed attack by the German Luftwaffe.

Yorktown Operating Near the Coral Sea

The lead ship, the Yorktown CV-5 was laid down in 1934 and commissioned on 30 September 1937 at Newport News Shipbuilding.   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 to screen convoys bound for Britain against U-Boat attacks. Yorktown was at 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 to escort a convoy ship transporting Marine reinforcements to Samoa.  This was 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 of Yorktown and TF-17 in the Solomons were connected to the Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby, in preparation for attacking Australia. The Japanese forces were led by a task force centered on the carriers  Shokau and Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho. The Americans parried the Japanese thrust with Task Group 11 centered on the USS Lexington and Fletcher’s Task Force 17 built around Yorktown.

Yorktown’s Nemesis The IJN Hiryu

The clash of the Japanese and American forces on the 7th and 8th of May 1942  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, and which was fought exclusively 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 so badly that her shattered hulk would be sunk by US destroyers on the 11th. As the Japanese aircraft worked over the unfortunate Sims which went down with all hands, Neosho, while aircraft from the Yorktown and Lexington attacked and sank the Shoho.

On the May 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 and 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. Lexington was lost more to poor damage control and failure to cut off fuel from damaged lines, than it was to battle damage.

TBD Devastators from Yorktown Operating in the Solomon Islands

Meanwhile, as the Japanese attacked Lexington, Yorktown was under attack by Japanese aircraft.  Expertly maneuvered by her Captain Elliott Buckmaster, she was able to avoid the deadly torpedoes launched by Nakajima Kate torpedo bombers, but suffered a bomb hit that penetrated her flight deck and exploded below decks killing 66 sailors and causing heavy damage.

                                            Sinking of the Shoho 

The battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese who sank 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.  Additionally neither the damaged Shokaku nor the Zuikaku, whose air group suffered heavy losses of aircraft and experienced aircrews would be available for the attack on Midway scheduled for June.

The damage suffered by Yorktown at Coral Sea was severe, and it was estimated by naval engineers that repairs to make her ready for combat would take three months. But the due to the success of US Navy code breakers the Navy had deciphered the Japanese intention to attack Midway, and forced the Navy to ensure that repairs to Yorktown could not take three months.

Critically short of ships the Navy determined that Yorktown would have to be available for the fight, meaning that her repairs had to be accomplished in three days, not the months.

Yorktown and her escorts arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 27th and in less than 72 hours she received the essential 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 May  30th with her escorts and her air group, which was augmented by squadrons from USS Saratoga which was unavailable for action after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in January, and which was still enoute to Hawaii following repairs and modernization on the West Coast.

With her necessary repairs completed, even lacking a fresh coat of paint. she and her cobbled together air group 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 as on June 3rd the Japanese 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, the light cruiser Niagara, and numerous escorting destroyers led Admiral Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet into battle.

Not expecting any intervention by US Navy forces, Nagumo’s aircraft hit Midway.  Before the attack land based aircraft from Midway manned by inexperienced flight crews made uncoordinated, and piecemeal attacks against the veteran Japanese combat air patrol A6M Zeros, who decimated the attackers.

The American ships were given a grace period and avoided detection as a scout plane from the cruiser Tone was late in departing for its assigned search sector.  Later, when the scout first spotted the Yorktown group, it did not report the presence of a carrier. The report provided Nagumo with a false sense of security, and he began to prepare for a second attack on Midway, and began removing torpedos and armor piercing bombs from his second wave, and replacing them with high explosive bombs. This created mayhem on the flight decks and hangar decks of his carriers.

Then the American carrier aircraft attacked as the Tone’s scout belatedly reported the presence of one aircraft carrier. The first to attack were slow, underpowered, under-armed, and obsolete TBD-1 Devastator torpedo planes attacked first.  Their attacks were suicidal, lacking fighter cover and uncoordinated with the attacks of the Dive Bombers, they were slaughtered. Of the 41 attacking aircraft only 6 returned to Enterprise and Yorktown, while all 15 aircraft from Hornet’s Torpedo 8 were lost.

The attack of the Devastators increased the chaos aboard the the Japanese carriers. Their crews scrambled to recover their returning aircraft, and to once again rearm the second wave with torpedoes and armor piercing bombs as they prepared to launch their aircraft to attack the American Task Force.

Likewise, while 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 their now fully fueled and armed aircraft preparing for launch, the bombs unloaded from the Kate Torpedo planes were still laying about the deck waiting to be stowed when 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 first wave of 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, and patched the her damaged flight deck, while her engineers restored power. Soon 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. 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 Captain Buckmaster ordered that she be abandoned.  As this was occurring a mixed attack group of dive bombers from Enterprise and now “homeless” Yorktown aircraft attacked Hiryu causing mortal damage to that brave ship.

Damage Survey Report of Torpedo Hits from I-158 on Yorktown and Hammann

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. Two more torpedoes hit Yorktown causing mortal damage. Once again her crew evacuated the proud ship. While Captain Buckmaster planned another attempt to save her on June 7th,  but on the morning of the 7th the gallant Yorktown rolled over and sank ringed by her escorts.

Yorktown Abandoned and Sinking

Yorktown was stricken from the Navy list on October 2nd 1942 and her name given to the second ship of the Essex class.  The second Yorktown would provide gallant service in war and peace. She is now is a museum ship in Charleston South Carolina.

On May 19th 1998, a search team led by Dr. Robert Ballard who had discover the wreck of RMS Titanic, found the wreck of Yorktown some 16,000 feet below the surface sitting upright on the ocean floor. Apart from the battle damage little deterioration was noted. The Ballard team photographed the wreck and left it alone. Since then no other explorations of Yorktown have been made. The great ship now lies over three miles below the Pacific, a memorial to her crew and the victory at Midway.

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