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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 Thin Gray Line: The USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, the Carriers that Held the Japanese at Bay in 1942

yorktown-drydock1USS 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.

hornet-as-completed1USS Hornet CV-8

The ships heritage was evident in their names. Yorktown, the lead ship of the class named after the victory of Washington and Rochambeau over Cornwallis at Yorktown, Enterprise named after the sloop of war commanded by Stephen Decatur in the war against the Barbary Pirates, and Hornet after another famous Brig of War commanded by James Lawrence which defeated the British ship Peacock in the War of 1812.

They 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.

enterprise-pre-war-with-ac-on-deck1USS Enterprise CV-6

Next week we will remember the epic battle of Midway, where these three gallant ships inflicted a devastating defeat on the Japanese First Carrier Strike Group. I believe that it is appropriate to go into that week remembering those ships and the brave sailors and aviators who made their triumph at Midway possible. the The links below are to articles about these three gallant ships.

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part One

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part Two the Hornet

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part Two the Hornet

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in the pacific

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part Three the Enterprise

Enterprise CV-6 circa 1940

This is the last of a three part series about the USS Yorktown Class Aircraft Carriers. It is the story of the USS Enterprise CV-6, the legendary “Big E” and possibly the most celebrated American warship of the Second World War.

The USS Enterprise CV-6, the second ship of the Yorktown class was ordered by the Navy on 3 August 1933 as authorized under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 16 June 1933.  She was laid down just under a year later and launched on 3 October 1936 at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, Newport News Virginia.  She was commissioned on May 12th 1938 to begin one of the most celebrated careers of any US Navy ship in history.  Displacing 25,500 tons full load Enterprise like her sister ships were designed for fast carrier operation working in conjunction with other carriers not tied to the battle line.  With good protection and speed the Enterprise incorporated the lessons learned in the preceding carriers.

Pre-War photo of Enterprise

After her shakedown cruise she operated in the Atlantic and Caribbean until April 1939 when she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and based a Pearl Harbor. As the flagship of Task Force 16 under Rear Admiral Bill “Bull” Halsey Enterprise conducted training operations and shuttled aircraft to various US island bases in the Central Pacific one such mission to Wake Island which had her out of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7th 1941.  Following the attack Enterprise and Task Force 16 would cover the Hawaiian Islands and then be used to conduct raids against Japanese bases in the Marshalls and protect convoys bound for Samoa.

Rare photo of the Enterprise at Midway

In April she escorted the newly arrived USS Hornet CV-8 to conduct the famed “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo.  Five days after returning to Pearl Harbor Enterprise was dispatched to the Coral Sea but could not arrive before that historic carrier battle.  She returned to Pearl Harbor on May 26th and with Halsey sick departed two days later as flagship of TF-16 under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A Spruance in company with Hornet, 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers with orders “to hold Midway and inflict maximum damage on the enemy by strong attrition tactics.”

TBD Devastator landign on Enterprise May 1942

They would be joined 2 days later by the hastily repaired USS Yorktown flagship of Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher and TF-17 escorted by 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers.  Fletcher the senior officer assumed tactical command of this comparatively small force which represented the bulk of US naval power in the Pacific.

This tiny force would face 4 fleet (CV) and 2 light fleet (CVL) carriers, 7 battleships, 10 heavy (CA) and 2 light (CL) cruisers and 42 destroyers.  Additionally the Japanese had an additional 2 carriers, 4 battleships, 3heavy cruisers 4 light cruisers and 23 destroyers involved in some way the simultaneous invasion of the Aleutian Islands which could be called into the fight if Admiral Yamamoto desired.

SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers over Enterprise

The Battle of Midway was an epic of warfare and Enterprise and her Air Group 6 would play a pivotal role. Torpedo Six under LCDR Max Leslie in its obsolete, underpowered and under armored TBD Devastators was chopped to pieces as they attempted torpedo attacks on the First Carrier Strike Force of Admiral Nagumo losing 10 of 14 aircraft.  As the gallant air crews of Torpedo Six along with Yorktown’s Torpedo 3 and Hornet’s ill-fated Torpedo Eight made their attacks Bombing Six under the command of CDR Wade McCloskie and Scouting Six under the command of  LT Dick Best attacked and mortally wounded the Japanese Flagship Akagi and the Soryu.  Later in the day aircraft from Enterprise would help sink the Hiryu and the following day helped mortally wound the Heavy Cruiser Mikuma. The Enterprise was not damaged by the Japanese at Midway.

Flight Operations on Enterprise

Following the Miracle at Midway the Enterprise took part in the Guadalcanal campaign participating in the invasion as well as the Battles of Santa Cruz and the Eastern Solomons.  In each of these actions she was seriously damaged but her air group was instrumental in the campaign at sea and ashore.   Following the sinking of the Wasp, Hornet and damage to Saratoga Enterprise was the only US carrier in action in the fall of 1942.

Enterprise under attack at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

Bomb Explosion on Enterprise at the Battle of Eastern Solomons

In November she took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal where her aircraft helped to finish off the Japanese battleship Hiei and participated in the sinking of 16 Japanese ships including transports which carried troops, equipment and supplies to the Japanese defenders of Guadalcanal. After another 6 months of action in the Solomons supporting the US advance Enterprise returned first to Pearl Harbor at which time she was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation by Admiral Chester Nimitz, the first carrier awarded the citation in the Second World War and then to Bremerton for a badly needed overhaul.

Emterprise struck by Kamikaze

Enterprise was back in action by November 1943 and participated in the US offensives in the Gilberts, Marshalls and the Marianas taking part in numerous raids, support to Marines ashore and in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Marianas Turkey Shoot.  After a month long refit at Pearl Harbor she participated in the attacks on the Volcano, Bonin and Palau including strikes on Yap and Ulithi followed by the fast carrier raids on Japanese facilities on Okinawa, Formosa and the Philippines which culminated in her participation in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history.  Her aircraft would participate in strikes on each of the Japanese surface forces hitting battleships, cruisers and other Imperial Navy units in the epic naval battle.

Enterprise made a short return trip to Pearl Harbor in December 1944 where she embarked an air group trained in night operations. Rejoining the fleet she took part in sweeps against Japanese bases, ships and facilities in Indochina, the Philippines, Formosa and Okinawa prior to the invasion of Iwo Jima.

Enterprise at Saipan

During this operation her aircraft worked night and day to provide air strikes and air defense to the fleet.  She then joined the raids against Honshu, Kyushu and the Inland Sea where her aircraft provided night strikes against Japanese targets ashore as well as air defense to fleet units. She was damaged by a Japanese bomb on the 18th of March and on 11 April damaged by Kamikazes off Okinawa and again on 5 May prior to her last wound of the war on 14 May when a Kamikaze struck forward elevator necessitating repairs at Bremerton.

Kamikaze Damage or forward elevator

Returning to the fleet to late for the final actions of the war Enterprise took part in Operation Magic Carpet returning US troops to the United States at the end of hostilities.  She was decommissioned on February 17th 1947.  While she was in reserve the Enterprise was redesignated first as an Attack Aircraft Carrier (CVA), and then as Anti-submarine Carrier (CVS).

Enterprise Fleet Week New York 1945

As the super-carrier entered the scene and the Essex and Midway Classes were modernized to accommodate jet aircraft the Enterprise was determined to be in excess of Navy needs.  Despite attempts by some to save her as a Naval Museum the money could not be raised, even with the support of the dying Fleet Admiral Bill Halsey.  Enterprise which Secretary of the Navy Forrestal said was “the one vessel that most nearly symbolizes the history of the Navy in this war” was sold for scrap on 1 July 1958 and scrapped at Kearney New Jersey from September 1958 to March 1960.  Like so many ships which serve their country so well she was casually disposed of by a nation which had forgotten its past.

Enterprise alongside new CVA 1958

Enterprise on the way to the breakers

Enterprise was the only ship to receive both the Presidential and Naval Unit Citations for her service in World War Two and she was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 20 battle stars.  Her place in the carrier force would be taken by a new Enterprise, CVN-65, the First Nuclear carrier which after nearly 50 years of service is still in commission. The Enterprise is so significant that her legacy continues in Hollywood Science fiction in the various Star Trek series as the Federation Starship Enterprise NCC-1701, 1701-A, 1701-B, 1701-D and 1701-E, so much so that NASA named the first experimental Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Never Forgotten USS Enterprise NCC-1701-B

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Filed under History, Navy Ships, world war two in the pacific