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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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Filed under aircraft, History, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

The Battle of Savo Island and Threats to the U.S. Navy Today

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                         USS Quincy under Attack off Savo Island 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I am going back to my World War II vault and reposting an older article about the Battle Of Savo Island off Guadalcanal. It was the most lopsided defeat in modern American Naval history. It happened a long time ago and in an age where the United States Navy has not lost a ship in combat, other to mines since August 6th 1945, we forget to remember that should a war break out with a near-peer competitor, like the Chinese Communists or the Russians in waterers where they can gain local superiority, or even regional powers such as Iran which could use asymmetric means of large numbers of small missile equipped ships and attack boats, costal submarines, and land based anti-ship missiles in “swarm attacks” to overwhelm technologically superior American ships in confined waters. We have come close to losing major ships, the cruiser USS Princeton and Helicopter Carrier USS Tripoli, to very primitive moored mines during the First Gulf War, the USS Ruben James to a mine during the tanker wars, and the USS Stark which was hit by Iraqi Exocet anti-ship missiles in 1987. Likewise we have come close to losing the Guided Missile destroyers USS Cole (Terrorist attack), USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald (avoidable collisions with merchant ships). 

We have been lucky. We won’t be as lucky in a real live shootout today. Ships will be lost, damaged, and sailors will die. Compounding the problem for the United States is that years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, failed experiments with reducing crew size (smart-ship), reductions in numbers of ships and sailors to satisfy the budgets needs to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and the stress put on remaining ships and aircraft have worn us down. Readiness rates remain down, and we no longer have the shipbuilding and repair facilities to replace losses and repair damaged ships, especially in a war with China. 

That is why instead of commenting on today’s news I write about the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in the modern era, which I label from World War II to the present. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

On August 8th 1942 the U.S. Task Force supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal was tired. The crews of the ships had been in continuous combat operations conducting naval gunfire support missions, fending off numerous Japanese air attacks and guarding against submarine attacks for two days. The force commanded by Admiral Richmond K. Turner was still unloading materials, equipment and supplies needed by the men of the 1st Marine Division who they had put ashore on the morning of the seventh.

On the afternoon of the eighth Turner was informed by Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that he was pulling his carrier task force out of action. Fletcher alleged that he did not have enough fighter aircraft (79 remaining of an original 98) and as low on fuel. The carriers had only been in action 36 hours and Fletcher’s reasons for withdraw were flimsy. Fletcher pulled out and left Turner and his subordinate commanders the responsibility of remaining in the area without air support with the transports still unloaded, and full of badly needed supplies and equipment.

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                                          Admiral Gunichi Mikawa

As the American drama played out, the Japanese moved forces into position to strike the Americans. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa commander of the 8th Fleet and Outer South Seas Force based at Rabaul New Britain quickly assembled a force of 6 heavy cruisers, the 14,000 ton Atago Class Chokai, and the four smaller ships of the Kako Class, the Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka, the light cruisers Yubari and Tenryu and the destroyer Yunagi. Mikawa raised his flag aboard Chokai and the force sped down “the slot” which ran the length of the of the Solomon’s chain mid day on the seventh.

The Americans had warning of their coming. The first sighting was by B-17s before the Japanese forces had reached Rabaul. The second was the elderly U.S. Navy submarine S-38 at 2000 on the 7th when they were 550 miles away not far from Rabaul. This report was discounted because it would not be unusual to find a number of fleet units steaming near a major naval base and fleet headquarters. The last which should have alerted the allies was a sighting by a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft on the morning of the 8th. However the pilot did not report the sighting until he returned from his mission returned to his base and had his tea. The eight hour delay in reporting the information as well as errors in it which reported 2 submarine tenders as part of the force lulled the Allied forces into believing that the Japanese were setting up a seaplane base and posed no threat to the invasion forces. It was a fatal error of reporting and judgment by the pilot.

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USS Astoria on August 8th off Guadalcanal and USS Chicago (below)

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In the absence of good information Turner deployed his support ships to cover the three entrances into what soon would be known as Iron Bottom Sound. He placed the Anti Aircraft Cruiser USS San Juan and Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart to the east with two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott. To protect the south west entrance into the sound south of Savo Island Turner placed the Heavy Cruisers USS Chicago, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral R.A.C. Crutchley RN who in theory commanded the screening force. To the north of Savo he deployed the Heavy Cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Astoria and USS Quincy and two destroyers under the tactical direction of Captain Frederick Riefkohl aboard Vincennes. To the west of Savo he placed two destroyers to act as picket ships. Unfortunately these ships radar sets were insufficient and would fail to pick up the approaching enemy.

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                                                   Allied Dispositions

During the early evening Turner recalled Crutchley to his flagship for consultations of what to do regarding Fletcher’s retreat. Crutchley came over in his flagship the Australia denuding the southern force of its commander as well as one of its three heavy cruisers. He left the commanding officer of Chicago Captain Howard D. Bode in tactical command but Bode did not have his ship take the lead position in the patrol assuming Crutchley would return bymidnight.

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USS Vincennes (above) and USS Quincy (below)

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HMAS Canberra Sydney Harbour

                                                    HMAS Canberra 

Mikawa launched float planes to scout the locations of the American ships and to provide illumination once the battle began. Some of these aircraft were spotted but no alert measures were taken as many assumed the Japanese to be friendly aircraft. Many commanding officers were asleep or resting away from the bridge of their ships, lookouts were tired and not expecting the Japanese and Condition Two was set in order to provide some of the tired crews a chance to rest.

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Light Cruiser Yubari illuminating American cruisers at Savo Island

Admiral Mikawa now new the Allied disposition and ordered his ships to battle stations at 0045. At 004 he sighted and passed astern of USS Blue the southern picket which also failed to detect the Japanese force. Mikawa assumed that the destroyer might have reported his presence, briefly turned north but turned back to his original course when a lookout allegedly spotted a destroyer to his northeast. He gave the order to attack at 0132 and promptly spotted the American destroyer USS Jarvis which had been heavily damaged and without radio communications was making her way toAustralia for repair and passed her after some ships fired torpedoes and raced toward the southern force at 26 knots. With the southern force just a few miles away Mikawa ordered his ships to commence firing at 0136 and at 0138 torpedoes had been launched.

Mikawa’s lookouts spotted the northern group at 0144 and changed course. The maneuver was badly executed and left the Japanese in two columns as they swiftly closed on the Americans. Mikawa’s flagship Chokai launched torpedoes at 0148 and Astoria the cruiser closest to the Japanese set general quarters at 0145 and at 0150 the Japanese illuminated her with searchlights and opened fire. Astoria under the direction of her gunnery officer returned fire at 0152 ½ just before her Captain came to the bridge unaware of the situation. He ordered a cease fire until he could ascertain who he was firing at assuming the Japanese to be friendly ships. He delayed 2 minutes and ordered fires commenced at 0154 but the delay was fatal. Astoria had opened fire on the Chokai which then had time to get the range on the American cruiser and hit her with an 8” salvo which caused fires which provided the other Japanese ships an aiming point.

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Japanese artist depiction of attack on US Navy Cruisers at Savo Island

Astoria was left burning and heavily damaged barely maintaining headway but attempted to fight on scoring a hit on Chokai’s forward turret even as the Japanese opened up on the next cruiser in line the USS Quincy. Quincy caught between the two Japanese columns. Aoba illuminated her with her searchlight and Japanese forces opened fire. The gunnery officer order Quincy to return fire getting two salvos off before her skipper Captain Samuel Moore came to the bridge, briefly ordered a cease fire assuming that he was firing on Americans and turned on his running lights. Quincy was ripped by salvo after salvo which killed Captain Moore and nearly everyone in the pilothouse just as a torpedo ripped into her engineering spaces turning them into a sealed death trap forcing the engineer to shut down the engines. Burning like a Roman candle Quincy was doomed she was ordered abandoned and capsized and sank at 0235. However Quincy did not die in vain, at 0205 two of her 8” shells hit Chokai causing enough damage the Admiral’s chart room that Mikawa would order a withdraw at 0220 which spared the now defenseless American transports.

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Vincennes, the lead ship and flagship was next in the line of death. Captain Reifkohl order General Quarters sounded not long after the Japanese illuminated the southern group. At 0150 Vincennes was lit up by the searchlights of three Japanese ships which opened fire on her. Vincennes returned fire at 0153 hitting Kinugasa before she was hit starting fires on her scout planes mounted on their catapults. The Japanese mauled Vincennes, three possibly four torpedoes ripped into her as shells put ever gun out of action. At 0215 she was left burning and sinking by the Japanese who soon withdrew from the action. Ordered abandoned she sank at 0250.

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         HMAS Canberra being evacuated by the Patterson and Blue

Canberra struggled against the odds but was abandoned and was sent to the bottom by an American torpedo at 0800. Astoria also struggled for life but the damage was too great and she was abandoned sinking at 1215. Mikawa withdrew up the sound but on his return the Heavy Cruiser Kako 70 miles from home was sunk by torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 sinking in 5 minutes.

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The Americans and Australians lost 4 Heavy Cruisers sunk and one heavily damaged. Two destroyers were also damaged. Casualties were heavy; Quincy lost 389 men killed, Vincennes, 342, Astoria, 235, Canberra, 85, Ralph Talbot, 14, Patterson, 10, and Chicago, 2.

It was an unmitigated disaster, an allied force destroyed in less than 30 minutes time. Boards of inquiry were held and Captain Bode hearing that he shouldered much blame killed himself in 1943.

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     Wrecks of the USS Quincy, Astoria, Vincennes, and HMAS Canberra

It was a rude awakening to a Navy which had believed that technical advances would give it victory and which  in the words of Admiral Ernest King  was not yet “sufficiently battle minded.” It was the first of many equally bloody battles in the waters around Guadalcanal which in the coming campaign became known as Ironbottom Sound.

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