Naval History and Heritage Command

Yorktown II conducted multiple patrols in the Atlantic to enforce American neutrality until the United States officially entered World War II. To reinforce the Atlantic and counter the success of German U-boats preying on British shipping, the American Navy transferred a substantial force, including the battleship division and accompanying cruisers and destroyers, from the Pacific, including the aircraft carrier Yorktown. In addition to coordinating defense plans for the Hawaiian island of Yorktown, the Navy also pointed out the need to seize advanced bases and protect convoys, scout, and screen in the Atlantic. Yorktown participated in Fleet Problem XXI, a two-part exercise devoted to future warfare in the Pacific, which ultimately characterized American naval operations in that theater. Operating out of San Diego, California, in 1940, she steamed into the Pacific in late April. If war came to American shores, Yorktown could make significant contributions to the air war, as well as defend against surface attacks and antisubmarine measures. President Franklin D. Roosevelt witnessed maneuvers conducted by Yorktown and her sistership, the USS Enterprise (CV-6). The fleet problem revealed the need for one fleet to control the sea lanes in the Caribbean to protect vital American interests and maintain sufficient naval strength to deter a foreign incursion into European power. Yorktown participated in her first war game, Fleet Problem XX, which called for the protection of the eastern seaboard operating along the Panama Canal Zone, Cristobal Bay, Guantanamo Bay, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands. After undergoing repairs in the Pacific, Yorktown returned to Norfolk, Virginia for subsequent training and shakedown under the command of Captain Ernest D. McWhorter. She was commissioned at the Naval Operating Base in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 30, 1937.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Pacific Fleet was reeling. Although no American aircraft carriers were sunk or damaged during the attack, the fact remained that there were only three carriers in the Pacific. These carriers were the Lexington (CV-2), the Enterprise, and the Pacific.

On February 14, the Yorktown set sail for the Coral Sea. However, due to unfavorable weather conditions, the attack on Japanese ships and installations at Atolls Mill and Makin had to be canceled. Instead, the Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor for replenishment and later resumed its journey to the sea. Unfortunately, during the mission, six of the Yorktown’s aircraft were lost. Nonetheless, the adverse weather conditions did not deter the bombers, scouts, and torpedo planes from launching an attack on Jaluit on January 31. In this offensive, four Japanese shipping and installations were destroyed by the bombers and torpedo planes launched from the Yorktown’s scout planes (Dauntlesses) and bombers (Devastators). The Yorktown was accompanied and protected by the destroyers St. Louis and Louisville (CL-49) and (CA-28) during this first American offensive.

After the raid in the South Pacific, the situation in Tonga’s harbor at Islands appeared to have stabilized. However, the task force soon moved to the enemy’s location in the Coral Sea to resume patrols and retire to the sea. This was the first combat experience for many pilots, and only one aircraft was lost to antiaircraft fire. The task force then launched attacks on shipping at Salamaua and Lae, moored close to the shore. Rear Admiral Wilson Brown, the commander of the task force, was prompted to change the objective to the Salamaua-Salamaua area in eastern New Guinea.

The composition of the Allied task force completing the joining group of cruiser-destroyers that joined the Battle of the Coral Sea on the eve of the battle was later joined by four barges and three minecrafts. Meanwhile, the Japanese destroyer Kikuzuki, which sank due to the 76 bombs and 22 torpedoes delivered by Yorktown’s aircraft attacks, was subject to three consecutive attacks on enemy ships and shore installations by Yorktown’s air group. On May 3, word came from Australian aircraft-based sources that Japanese transports disembarking equipment and troops were at Gavutu and Tulagi. However, on April 27, Yorktown was once again underway for the Coral Sea. The Japanese planned to commence the construction of a seaplane base to support their thrust southward. Accordingly, Yorktown set course for Tulagi, where the newly established Japanese beachhead was within striking distance the following day.

Aircraft launching from Yorktown discovered the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku. The following morning, on 8 May, a search plane from Lexington located the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku. The Japanese light carrier was severely punished and sent below the waves by Yorktown and Lexington’s aircraft. Shoho was located by the aircraft from both ships, which provided a valuable service by diverting the attention of the Japanese away from the carriers. Although Neosho took seven direct hits, she managed to stay afloat for a few more days before being sunk by the Allies. Sims, on the other hand, was hit three times and sank rapidly, resulting in a significant loss of life. Japanese search planes discovered the oiler Neosho (AO-23) and her escort Sims (DD-409), while Fletcher led his two flattops and their screens northward in search of the enemy. The task force, accompanied by cruisers and destroyers, headed towards the Louisiade archipelago to intercept any enemy movement towards Port Moresby at daybreak the next morning. On the morning of 6 May, Allied forces gathered under Fletcher’s tactical command.

They had stopped their drive toward the strategic Port Moresby and saved the fragile lifeline between Australia and America. However, the Allied force had achieved a strategic victory, stemming the tide of Japan’s conquests in the southwest and south Pacific. The Japanese had won a tactical victory, inflicting heavy losses on the Allied force. The nearby cruiser “Lexington” was deployed into the end of Lady Lex’s effort, which hastened the ship’s abandonment. The crew of Lexington, commanded to abandon ship, valiantly rescued the crew from the water after being torpedoed. Despite the massive explosion that rocked the ship, they managed to get the fires under control. However, damage control efforts were unable to prevent a bomb from penetrating the flight deck and exploding below, causing damage to the control deck. Meanwhile, the carrier Yorktown, although facing her own problems, was able to dodge eight torpedoes and survive. Lexington took three bomb hits and two torpedoes on her port side, causing her to list and slip below the control of her aircraft fighters. Some 17 enemy aircraft formations were able to slash through the American Wildcats and down them. Although the attack came shortly before noon, the American carriers were planning a retaliatory strike and continued to pound the Japanese flattops, as reported by the intelligence located at the enemy carriers.

On May 30, the ship TF-17 steamed from ship central to put Yorktown on sea to enable the ship to be repaired. Miraculously, enough repairs were made and workers labored around the clock at Pearl Harbor yard, including the Yorktown battle plan. Admiral Chester Nimitz began the operation known as Midway, which aimed to be on the threshold of two low coral atoll islets at Midway. The Japanese estimated from decoded naval messages that the Japanese were on the threshold of a major operation. This intelligence, notably the Allied cryptographic unit at Pearl Harbor, gained enough information. Unfortunately, there was little time for repairs because the battle suffered damage during the estimated three-month overhaul for Yorktown.

The combination of bombs and gasoline was catastrophic and explosive, and the Japanese carriers were caught in the midst of refueling and rearming operations, resulting in a disastrous outcome for them. Within a short period of time, the planes from Enterprise successfully destroyed Akagi and Kaga, reducing them to fiery wrecks. Soryu endured heavy damage from Yorktown’s dive-bombers, with three devastating hits from 1,000-pound bombs that caused the ship to become engulfed in flames. The Japanese had abandoned their high-altitude cover to focus on the low-flying Devastators above their ships, leaving the skies open for the Dauntlesses. Although only six out of the 41 torpedo planes returned after their mission, their sacrifice served a purpose. The torpedo planes from the three flattops successfully located the Japanese carrier striking force. Additionally, Enterprise and Hornet launched their own attack groups. After the initial attack group had landed, Yorktown launched a second group. This group searched for about 100 miles but found nothing before returning to the ship at 0830. At dawn on June 4th, Yorktown launched a group of ten Dauntlesses.

On June 7, at 0701, the valiant flattop Yorktown overturned and sank, with a depth of 3,000 fathoms. The Japanese submarine I-158 managed to fire two torpedoes undetected, hitting the side port of Yorktown. Despite ongoing efforts to save Yorktown, the crew had to abandon the ship as it drifted. Although the Japanese flattop was striking and helpless, Yorktown’s aircraft were still fighting in the air. However, Yorktown was dead in the water and left to drift. As the list increased and the rudder jammed, the ship lost power and eventually sank. During the devastating attack, Yorktown managed to launch aircraft to fend off the Japanese and somewhat recover. Despite the valiant efforts of the enemy planes, three hits were scored on the ship to keep the attack ongoing. Planes were falling from the sky and flying in every direction. The Wildcats intercepted and vigorously attacked the Japanese, covering a distance of about 20 to 15 miles. Around 1329, Yorktown’s radar picked up the incoming group of enemy planes, and subsequently launched her fighters. Soon, it was discovered that a force of 18 “Vals” had been launched from Hiryu, Yorktown’s sister ship, which remained large and separated. The Japanese had already lost three carriers.

Although the nation’s service to Yorktown was relatively short, she played a significant role in stopping the turning tide and expansion of the Japanese. Yorktown received three battle stars during the Battles of Midway and Coral Sea, which were significant battles during the war.

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