The crippled USS Yorktown traded its life for victory at Midway

The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was heavily damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea, but it pushed on to join other Navy forces at the Battle of Midway, where the valiant actions of the crew helped ensure a U.S. victory despite the loss of the ship.

The Yorktown was one of America’s eight active carriers when the country formally entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was based in the Atlantic at the time of the attack, but was soon equipped with additional anti-aircraft weapons and sent to the Pacific where it became the flagship of Task Force 17.

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The USS Yorktown sailing in 1937. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

On May 7, 1942, Task Force 17 found itself in a historic battle that would affect the direction of the war. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, a Japanese task force tried to invade the capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby.

From May 7-8, the American and Japanese fleets clashed in the Pacific in the first naval battle where the two fleets couldn’t see each other. American planes sank the light carrier Shoho along with some smaller ships and damaged two other carriers. But Japanese forces sank the Lexington and heavily damaged the USS Yorktown.

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Sailors view the damage to the USS Yorktown after a bomb hit suffered during the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The ship and air wing losses on each side would be important because Japan was planning an attack at Midway Atoll that could tip the balance of power in the Pacific or accelerate a Japanese victory in the war. Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz knew he needed his carriers ready to go.

And so the Yorktown, suffering from a penetrating bomb strike and eight near-misses, was far from combat ready. Its radar was out, there was a hole in the flight deck, an elevator was damaged, and she was leaking fuel and oil across the surface of the ocean.

An estimate by Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch stated that it would take 90 days to repair the ship. Nimitz gave the ship three days before it had to ship out to Midway.

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The USS Yorktown returns to Pearl Harbor on Feb. 6, 1942, after a series of raids. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

About 1,400 repairmen worked around the clock to patch up as much of the ship as possible, and on May 30 the Yorktown steamed towards its rendezvous near Midway.

Thanks to codebreaking efforts, the U.S. was able to ambush the Japanese fleet heading to Midway. And even with the Yorktown present, America was outnumbered in all ship types. The Japanese had brought about 124 ships including six carriers against America’s 40 ships including only three carriers.

Spoiling for a fight

The first hours of the fight went horribly for the U.S., as land and ship-based torpedo planes went in waves against the Japanese carriers only to be cut down by Zeroes. Many of the planes couldn’t even get their torpedoes fired before they were shot down. Of the torpedoes that were launched, all either failed to hit or to explode.

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Japanese Type 97 B5N bombers attack the USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

But after six attacks from Wake Island and from the other carriers, two flights of Navy Dauntless dive bombers zeroed in on the Japanese carriers. The first flight came from the USS Enterprise and followed a Japanese destroyer to find the enemy carrier. The second flight came from the Yorktown.

The two flights rained dive bombs onto the Japanese carriers Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu. Recently fueled and re-armed Japanese planes on the decks went up in fireballs next to hoses and weapons strewn about the decks.

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The deck of the USS Yorktown after it suffers three bomb strikes during the Battle of Midway. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

What followed was probably the most damaging few minutes of the war for the Japanese. Three carriers and much of their air arms were completely destroyed and sent to the bottom of the Pacific, largely thanks to the Yorktown which had limped into combat and still scored a staggering blow.

Another Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, was sank by other forces.

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The USS Yorktown burns after three Japanese bomb strikes during the Battle of Midway. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class William G. Roy)

But the Japanese fleet survived and managed to exact its revenge on the Yorktown. The Hiryu’s planes found the American ship and hit it with three bombs. The already crippled ship lost its boilers and listed in the water. Navy Capt. Elliott Buckmaster ordered the Yorktown abandoned.

Despite the leaks and the list, the ship continued to float and a salvage crew was sent back to see what could be recovered. It was during that salvage trip that the Japanese submarine I-168 fired a spread of torpedoes that finally doomed the stalwart Yorktown as well as the destroyer USS Hammann.

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