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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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Challenger: 27 Years Later

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“We risk great peril if we kill off this spirit of adventure, for we cannot predict how and in what seemingly unrelated fields it will manifest itself. A nation that loses its forward thrust is in danger, and one of the most effective ways to retain that thrust is to keep exploring possibilities. The sense of exploration is intimately bound up with human resolve, and for a nation to believe that it is still committed to a forward motion is to ensure its continuance.” James A. Michener 1979

It is still hard to believe. But then Space Shuttles don’t blow up every day, but the Space Shuttle Challenger just beginning mission STS-51L on that cold and sunny Florida morning.

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Challenger’s crew

I guess that events like the explosion of Challenger remain with those that viewed them because they were unusual, historic and most of all, tragic. Yes we remember events of triumph as well, and they too make an imprint on our memories, but tragedies that impact a nation and the world touch us in a different and often more powerful way. I think this is because they expose to us our own mortality and vulnerability to things that we cannot control.

I know that I, like many others of my generation had grown up with the triumphs of the NASA manned space program. We had seen the incredible success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.  Success and triumph were associated with the program. Even the tragic fire which consumed the command module of the Apollo I mission on January 27th 1967 during a launch pad test killing Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee did little to quench our belief in the program.

In 1972 as the Apollo program wound down a new program was developed to be a more affordable means to continue space travel and scientific study. The program became the Space Shuttle program built around reusable orbiters of which Challenger was the third built for the program.

By the time Challenger was being prepared for STS-51-L we had become to Shuttle missions being routine. NASA was launching a mission every two to three months.  Challenger was the second of two missions in January 1986, her sister Columbia having returned from a 6 day mission just 10 days before her launch.

This familiarity with the routine of the Shuttle program and expectation of success made many of us forget that space travel is inherently dangerous and that complex vehicles like the Shuttle were not indestructible.

The STS-51-L mission was to be the 10th for the Challenger in under three years of service. The mission had been delayed due to weather on the 22nd and rescheduled several times due to weather or in one case due to problems with an exterior access hatch.

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Challenger takes off on January 28th 1986

The morning of the launch the weather was predicted to be at or below the 31 degree minimum safe launch threshold. Engineers from the builder of the Challenger’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) Morton Thiokol contacted NASA with their concerns that the O-Rings which sealed the joints on the SRBs which they believed might not seal properly.  NASA engineers argued that even if the primary O-Ring failed that the secondary O-Ring would be sufficient even though this was an unproven theory. Eventually Thiokol management overruled their engineers influenced by NASA management which demanded that Thiokol prove that it was not safe to launch rather than prove that it was safe to launch. Considering it was a “Criticality 1” component meaning that there was no backup in case of a failure of both joints. It was a clear violation of protocol but the later Rogers Commission would show that NASA managers frequently ignored or evaded safety regulations to meet their very ambitious mission schedule. This decision doomed Challenger and her crew of seven.

On the 28th of January 1986 I was a young commander of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Wiesbaden Germany. I had heard about the scheduled launch of the Shuttle but paid it little regard, despite the presence if Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space.” That evening was hoping to close out the day by 7PM which was early for me as well as most officers in the 68th Medical Group and 3rd Support Command of what we commonly called the Imperial Army on the Rhine, the US Army Europe.

I had a stack of work in my inbox, NCO evaluations, criminal investigations, maintenance reports and upcoming missions, not to mention trying to get a head start on my Unit Status Report. Most of my soldiers except those on duty had finished for the day.

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Challenger’s last moments

About 20 minutes to Six my senior duty person at the company, the Charge of Quarters or CQ in Army parlance came to my door which was at the far end of the hallway from where the CQ was stationed. Specialist Lisa Daley was a solid medic and outstanding soldier who had a great personality that caused her to be well liked in the company.  She came to my door and blurted out “Lieutenant Dundas! The Space Shuttle just blew up!”

I looked up from my desk and I remember my words to this day. “Specialist Daley, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” She then said, “No sir they do, it’s on TV right now!”

I was stunned by her pronouncement. I got up and followed her as she told me what had happened. While I reached the CQ desk I saw the small television which she and her assistant CQ were watching. There was a live feed from CNN replaying the disaster, the twin plumes of smoke careening across the screen marking the spot where 73 seconds into the flight Challenger exploded. I stood there in shock, the images of the divergent plumes of smoke being etched into my mind.

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Atlantis landing on her final mission

It is hard to forget. 17 years later I was waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to arrive at Naval Station Mayport Florida for the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend hosted by the USS HUE CITY. I got to the ship early and while drinking coffee in the Wardroom saw the news of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It brought back the images of the Challenger disaster. General Pace was delayed as the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council held an emergency meeting and arrived several hours late and when he arrived he spoke of the Challenger disaster along with the Columbia.

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The Shuttle program ended with the final mission of the Shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. As one that still dreams of the stars and manned space exploration I do hope that NASA is able to return to manned space missions and go beyond what we have done before. I hope that future programs including the Orion program and maybe manned missions to Mars and beyond can fulfill that ever hopeful opening dialogue of Star Trek: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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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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